Council Approves 15% Cut in Halibut Bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the allowable halibut bycatch by trawlers and longliners by 15 percent, to be phased in over three years with a targeted implementation in 2014.

After nearly two days of public comment from about 100 stakeholders at the Harbor Convention Center, the council passed the measure introduced by Dan Hull of Anchorage by a 10-1 vote. Outgoing member Dave Benson of Washington was the lone dissent.

The 15 percent reduction was the maximum amount under consideration by the council and amounts to about 311 metric tons, or about 685,000 pounds, once fully implemented.

In year one, a 7 percent cut will be implemented, followed by another 5 percent cut in year two and a 3 percent cut in year three. The phase-in was a compromise with the non-halibut trawl and longline fleets to allow them time to adjust to the cuts in the bycatch caps.

Other than a 27.4 metric ton reduction in the rockfish catch share program approved in 2010 that took effect this year, the council had not reduced trawl halibut bycatch since the 2,000 metric ton cap (4.4 million pounds), was passed in 1986.

Halibut bycatch reductions have been sought for years, but the last five years of drastic cuts to commercial halibut harvests and restrictions on the Southeast charter sector have brought the issue front and center and created an enormous amount of pressure on the council to take a decisive and meaningful action.

"This motion shows the council is willing to step up," said member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, adding the action was "consistent with the conservation requirements" of the Magnuson Stevens Act national standards to minimize bycatch and consider community impacts of management actions.

The motion included other accommodations to the various trawl sectors, including greater flexibility in managing the halibut cap by rolling over unused bycatch between seasons, and aggregating the available amount for use in both the deep water and shallow water trawl fisheries.

Several members of the council said they were only reluctantly supporting the measure based on the difficulty of managing a hard cap in an open access fishery. Under the catch share style program long sought by the trawl fleet, allocation of fishing privileges and bycatch offered a better path toward more meaningful bycatch reductions.

Roy Hyder of Oregon, and Bill Tweit and John Henderschedt of Washington were the council members who said they didn't like the final action but were compelled to vote for it because they did not want to go on record as opposing bycatch reductions.

Benson, who was attending his last council meeting after serving nine years, or three terms, echoed the complaints of his fellow Pacific Northwest members in casting the lone "no" vote.

The Alaska delegation fought off several attempts to modify Hull's motion during deliberations.

Henderschedt introduced a motion that would have been a 12 percent cut over two years, with the goal to begin working toward a comprehensive catch share system for the trawl fleet. That failed 2-9, with Hyder joining Henderschedt on the vote.

Then Tweit introduced an amendment that would have phased in the cuts over four years, with 7 percent in year one, no further cut in year two, 5 percent in year three and 3 percent in year four.

That amendment earned the support of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, who said would help the trawl fleet because the council hadn't given it the "tools" to reduce bycatch through a catch share program.

Chairman Eric Olson quickly spoke up against that idea, as did Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell.

In reference to Balsiger's comment that the trawl fleet could start working now on the 7 percent reduction, Campbell said, "this is something they should have been thinking about for the last two years as we've been considering this package. What's already on the table represents a lot of time and there's no reason to stretch that out."

Tweit's amendment failed 4-7.

The one amendment that did pass was to only cut the longline catcher processor fleet by 7 percent rather than the full 15 percent, based on halibut savings the fleet has achieved through its voluntary co-operative and other reduction in the recent Pacific cod sector splits between longline and trawl sectors.

In speaking in support of his motion to address the trawl industry arguments that this debate over bycatch is about allocation and not conservation, Hull pointed to the analysis that stated a bycatch limit is not an allocation.

"Instead," the document stated regarding bycatch limits, "it reflects the maximum removal amount of the designated species that society is prepared to tolerate, before it takes punitive action to curtail further (prohibited species catch) losses. Because PSC must be avoided, to the extent practicable, it cannot be regarded as an asset of fixed quantity, but instead as an upper-bound threshold, the farther below which the total PSC mortality level, the better, all else equal."

Based on the massive volume of public comment and written submissions seeking a bycatch cut, Hull noted, society's willingness to tolerate halibut bycatch in an environment of declining abundance of catchable fish has clearly reached its limit.