Factory trawlers praised for halibut conservation
What a difference a year makes for the halibut bycatch controversy in the Bering Sea at the December meetings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage. The flatfish factory trawlers, vilified for much of this year, reported vigorous and voluntary efforts at halibut conservation, and even received praise from the Pribilofs. Their zeal was prompted by what might be termed resolution number two-by-four of the fish council last summer, which slashed halibut bycatch by 25 percent.
"It was a huge hit to our sector," said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum said last week.
But voluntary efforts by the flatfish fleet have already saved 265 metric tons of halibut this year, he said, exceeding the goal of 217 metric tons.
He cited the benefits of a special federal permit allowing deck sorting that gets the halibut back into the water faster and with greater chances of survival. With the halibut removed from the net and returned to the water from the top deck of the boat, only about half the halibut die, down from the 83 percent that perish when kept inside the huge trawl net for up to two hours while below decks in the factory area, he said.
At last week's NPFMC meeting, representatives of the factory trawlers in the Amendment 80 fleet said that they were already taking measures to limit halibut bycatch, getting out ahead of the 25 percent cut that takes effect next year.
Their efforts were praised by council members, and one of the trawlers' chief critics, St. Paul Mayor Simeon Swetzof, calling the voluntary measures "a positive thing," and who anticipates an increased halibut allocation next year for the central Bering Sea from the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
"I'm glad what is happening now is happening," said Swetzof, who was furious when the issue first arose last year, warning of "devastating" impacts on halibut harvesters in the Pribilof Islands, at the December 2014 fish council meeting in Anchorage.
He said the big boats were being allowed to waste more halibut as bycatch than the small hook and line fishermen were allowed to harvest for commercial markets.
The resulting uproar lead to calls from small boat fishermen and state legislators for a much deeper bycatch cut, of 50 percent. The council settled on a compromise of 25 percent at its June meeting in Sitka.
The Amendment 80 fleet presented a united front of voluntary compliance, with four lobbyists making a joint appearance before the council, Groundfish Forum Executive Director Chris Woodley; Bill Orr of the Fishing Company of Alaska with four active factory trawlers; Mary Beth Tooley of the O'Hara Corporation, a Maine-based fishing business; and Arne Fuglvov, director of government affairs for Iquique U.S. which operates the factory trawlers Rebecca Irene, Cape Horn, and Unimak.
Fuglvog said Iquique has spent between $400,000 and $500,000 on bycatch reduction, and released half of the fish deck sorted fleetwide under the experimental fishing permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Fuglvog said the fleet coordinated bycatch reduction in a "pretty grueling" four months of twice-weekly meetings, combined with radio conversations with vessel captains on the fishing grounds. He also said it helped that the Fishing Company of Alaska has rejoined the Groundfish Forum, so that now the entire fleet belongs to the same trade association.
"It's very beneficial to have FCA at the table through all of this," said Fuglov, a former chairman of the fish council's advisory panel.
Fuglvog described halibut avoidance measures as a work in progress.
"We don't know what next year's going to look like. We need a year or more to really see," he said.
Fuglov was much in the news a few years ago when he served federal prison time for fishing violations involving sablefish in Southeast Alaska.
The Amendment 80 fleet is composed of 18 active factory trawlers mainly from Seattle, which target Atka mackerel, rockfish, and various flatfish including yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder, rock sole, rex sole, and Greenland turbot. Those species are primarily sold overseas.
They are not allowed to keep halibut that is incidentally netted. The halibut fishery is limited to hook and line vessels, governed by an international treaty between the United States and Canada.
During the fishing seasons, the flatfish factory trawlers work out of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.
Jim Paulin can be reached at email@example.com.