Emotions Run High In Sitka Over Halibut Bycatch Debate

As the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in Sitka this week, the most contentious issue on the agenda is a proposal to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. Commercial halibut fishermen up and down the coast are pushing the council to reduce bycatch limits, while trawlers and others in the Bering Sea say they’ve already reduced bycatch voluntarily  — and lower limits would be ruinous.

Emotions are running high on all sides of the issue. The Council got a preview of that during testimony before its advisory panel this week.

About 150 signed up to testify before the Council on the issue of halibut bycatch. Many of them sharpened their arguments before the council’s industry advisory panel earlier in the week. That panel ended up voting to recommend some cuts in bycatch caps, of up to 45% for some sectors.

Retired Sitka longliner Carolyn Nichols told the panel she worries that if the groundfish fleet continues to take bycatch at current levels, it will endanger the halibut stock — and the future of halibut fishing.

“There are a lot of kids here, like my son, who’s taken over the boat, who are like, yeah why should I buy halibut quota? Because they’re just going to take it away from me when it goes down.”

She pointed out that Canada has managed to cut its bycatch significantly. She was challenged by Advisory Panel member Patrick O’Donnell.

“Do you understand that the Canadians reduced from TK vessels down to 55 in part to accomplish the reductions? And the effects that would have on displacing processing crew, captains, and boats in the Bering Sea?”

“Are you aware of the effects it’s going to have if the directed halibut fishery, the sport fishery, the charter fishery and the subsistence fishery goes down the drain in all of Alaska, Canada, Washington and California?”

John Nelson, captain of the Bering Sea trawler the Rebecca Irene, said his fleet isn’t getting credit for the extensive measures they’ve already put in place to avoid bycatch.

“There’s not a magic bullet here. The increments are going to be small at this point…we can make improvements. But it’s getting harder and harder. We’re really using all the tools at our disposal.”

Nelson said a 50-percent cut in the bycatch cap would force his fleet to shut down part of the year, and mean that crewmembers will lose their jobs.

That’s already happened to halibut fishermen, said Sitkan Frank Balovich. Longliners like him have absorbed big cuts, he said. It’s time for the groundfish fleet to take theirs.

“I mean, why is their family more important than mine? Why are their kids more important than mine? Why is their boat more important than mine? Why is their crew more important than mine?”

He was echoed later that afternoon by Heather Mann, of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative.

“Why is a crewmember on a directed halibut boat more important than a crewmember’s livelihood on a trawl boat? It’s not. It’s not.”

Mann said her fleet has reduce bycatch to below 1% of their catch. She had a question for those who say they can do better.

“How? How in this situation can the trawl catcher vessels in the Pacific Cod fishery do better?”

Meanwhile, for Simeon Swetsov, Jr, the mayor of St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, it’s a matter of survival. In the Bering Sea around St. Paul, more halibut was taken as bycatch in the past few years than caught by the commercial halibut fleet. If current trends don’t change, halibut fishermen in his region face being shut out of the fishery entirely. Swetsov choked up, talking about the impact.

“I’m extremely angry that we’re here today [[starts crying]]…we’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time.”

It’s a matter of justice, he said.

“We live right out in the richest ocean in the world practically, and we’re going to see this happen to us, in our own backyard! No! We’ll fight it!”

That fight will continue over the next few days. The Council is expected to vote on halibut bycatch this weekend.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Sitka through Tuesday, June 9. The Council will continue taking public comment on Saturday, and is expected to vote on the issue sometime this weekend. You can find links to the the full agenda and Council livestream, on our website, kcaw.org.