Major fishing companies targeting the Alaska flatfish sector blasted the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) this week for a decision it says could cost thousands of jobs and millions in lost revenue.
Members of the NPFMC voted Monday to tie halibut bycatch limits to Eastern Bering Sea (EBS) abundances, a decision that will have significant consequences on several major companies targeting the Alaska flatfish sector.
The council voted 8-to-3 in favor of a measure that will lower the current bycatch cap between 20 to 35 percent, depending on the levels of halibut in the Eastern Bering Sea. It is estimated the measure won't go into effect for the Amendment 80 fleet until 2023.
The council action followed several days of often emotional testimony in an ongoing fisheries battle over the scope of the trawlers’ catch of a revered flatfish found off the US West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. Surveys indicate halibut have been in decline over the past 15 years.
When halibut abundance is very low, the prohibited species catch, or PSC limit, decreases for the Amendment 80 fleet by 35 percent from the current cap amount of 1,745 metric tons, according to the motion.
The Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands halibut abundance-based management, or ABM, is not currently in place for the Amendment 80 fleet. The cap is fixed and is not adjusted to halibut abundance. If the fleet exceeds that cap, they have to stop fishing.
If they do exceed the bycatch cap, they will be cited and investigated by the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, the agency told IntraFish.
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Since 2008, strict regulations to limit halibut bycatch, including hard caps, have been imposed on the Groundfish Forum fleet, which harvests wild Alaska sole and flounder in the Bering Sea, and is also known as the Amendment 80 fleet.
"This is a very sad day for science-based fishery management in Alaska," GroundFish Forum CEO Chris Woodley said of the decision.
"For the first time in its history, the council has ignored science and its own analysis and has chosen a path that has no conservation benefit and results in a net negative benefit to the nation."
The Groundfish Forum trade association represents five member companies -- Fishermen's Finest, Northstar Fishing, Ocean Peace Inc., O'Hara Corporation, and United States Seafood --operating 19 trawl vessels that catch and process a variety of Alaska groundfish species in the federally managed Amendment 80 fisheries off the coast of Alaska.
The Amendment 80 Fleet has argued that bycatch by Alaska flatfish trawlers in the Bering Sea is not the cause, nor will it remedy catch limit declines in the halibut fishery.
The measure will result in a $110 million (€97 million) loss to the Washington-based flatfish fishermen and threaten thousands of jobs, according to the GroundFish Forum.
Since 2016, the NPFMC has been working on abundance-based management measures to further reduce halibut bycatch in the Alaska flatfish fisheries, in response to low quotas in the directed halibut fishery.
Some fishermen in the Bering Sea region were pushing for the council to enact the motion both out of economic and sustainability concerns, according to The Alaska Journal of Commerce.
The directed halibut fleet in the Bering Sea is one of the economic mainstays for coastal communities in Western Alaska, the news site reports.
Halibut is also a critically important subsistence resource in many of the communities of the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.