Regulators adopt new rules to limit Alaskan halibut bycatch

The federal body responsible for regulating fishing in US waters off Alaska has adopted new rules to limit the incidental catch of halibut by fishermen trawling in the Bering Sea.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board passed the policy by an 8 to 3 vote last week, KTUU reported. It is expected to come into force in 2023.

The trawler fleet targets groundfish such as sole and yellowfin sole. The Groundfish Forum, which represents 19 Seattle-based vessels that make up the fleet, said its vessels are the largest producers of flatfish and rockfish in the United States.

Boats also inadvertently catch an average of 2.8 million pounds of halibut per year. Federal law prohibits the fleet from keeping halibut and fishermen return them to the ocean, but many halibut die in the process.

Currently, there is a static cap on the fleet’s halibut bycatch, which means fishermen must stop fishing if the number is reached.

But supporters of tighter limits argued the cap was too permissive and insisted that it be lowered.

Under new rules adopted by council on December 13, the cap will remain the same when halibut stocks are high. But when stocks go down, bycatch limits go down to 35%.

The state of Alaska proposed the new rules based on abundance.

“This is a very important step in managing halibut bycatch,” said Heather McCarty of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. “This will hopefully help create more equity between halibut bycatch users and commercial and athletic halibut users.”

The trawler fleet has halved its halibut bycatch since 2007 by modifying its gear and sorting halibut caught by deck crews.

Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, said the new rules would put jobs at risk and could cost the industry tens of millions of dollars every year.

“We directly employ 2,200 crew members per year and from these fisheries our crew members produce over 600 million meals per year for consumers around the world,” he said during testimony before the board.

He said his organization was exploring “all options”.

The Pribilof Aleutian Islands Association, an indigenous Alaskan tribal organization, had called for more stringent bycatch limits.

“It is our responsibility towards our creator to use with respect the resources which have been given to us, as we were given halibut,” Karen Pletnikoff, responsible for the association’s environment and safety program, told the board.

Naomi C. Amerson