Bering Sea/Aleutians Halibut Bycatch Limit Tightened
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to switch halibut bycatch for Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) groundfish trawlers to an abundance-based limit.
A Floating Cap
The trawl fleet is currently capped at no more than 1,745 metric tons of halibut incidentally snagged while fishing for sole or yellowfin sole. The cap has remained fixed for years while halibut abundance decreased. The new method would lower the limit to 1,309 metric tons, a 25 percent reduction in allowed bycatch, given the low abundance surveyed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service. If abundance continues to fall, the limit could drop as low as 1,134 metric tons. At higher abundance, the limit would rise no higher than the current cap.
The regulation was adopted at the council’s meeting this month by a vote of eight to three. Opposition came from Oregon’s council member and two from Washington, where all nineteen trawlers in the fleet are home ported. The council noted that trawlers are concerned that halibut abundance will vary regardless of what measures they take to avoid incidental catch.
The new bycatch limit is scheduled to be implemented either in mid-2023 or the beginning of the 2024 fishing season.
Since bycatch regulations were last amended in 2015, fishers primarily targeting halibut have advocated for tighter limits. Halibut stocks have declined steadily in the Bering Sea since 1990, affecting the fishery in the Gulf of Alaska. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association welcomed the tighter limit; the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association had demanded even lower bycatch.
A statement from the council says abundance-based management strikes a balance between federal requirements to minimize bycatch while achieving optimum yield. The statement adds that the council would rather not impose additional costs on the trawl fleet, but action had to be taken, given the declining halibut population. The council further notes that the new rule does not guarantee increased opportunities for halibut fishing.
The impending limit of 1,309 metric tons is slightly above the amount of bycatch in an average year, which is why advocates for a tighter limit called the higher limit meaningless. The trawl fleet, however, points out that not every year is average, and the measures taken to avoid halibut could reduce the amount of groundfish caught.
The Groundfish Forum, an industry group representing the BSAI trawl fleet, is considering options for challenging the council’s rule.