Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 5:03 PM on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Not too late to comment on trawl bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled to take final action on a proposal to reduce halibut bycatch by the trawl fleet by up to 15 percent at its next meeting, which takes place in Kodiak beginning June 4. Fishermen of all stripes are being encouraged to submit comments on the proposal and sign a petition being circulated by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council asking NPFMC to take the maximum 15 percent reduction.

Comments can now be submitted to NPFMC via email at npfmc.comments@noaa.gov, or by regular mail to Comments, NPFMC, 605 West 4th, Suite 306, Anchorage, Alaska 99501-2252. The deadline for this issue is May 29, and comments must include the person's name and affiliation, if any.

AMCC also is looking for people to travel to Kodiak for the meeting in order to testify in person, but the timing is not ideal, according to former AMCC board member Pete Wedin who is helping rally supporters and is in charge of the petition.

"I know the people in Kodiak are freaking out because they've got a (salmon) opening on the ninth," he said.

He added AMCC was successful in getting this item moved to the top of the agenda, and he said public comment should be taking place on June 6 and 7, which may allow for more participants.

Halibut bycatch has been getting more and more scrutiny as the quotas for the directed fishery continue to be slashed across most of the state. The International Pacific Halibut Commission and NPFMC held a workshop in Seattle last month to examine several aspects of the bycatch problem, including the way data is collected and used, and halibut migration and life cycles.

It was the first time the two entities had met jointly.

The timing of the workshop was meant to make the information available in time for the NPFMC meeting in June. The workshop summary will be out next week.

Current bycatch limits are set at 2,000 metric tons for trawlers and 300 metric tons for fixed gear, an amount that was set in 1986 for trawlers and 1993 for fixed gear. Those removals, which cannot be retained and are thrown overboard mostly dead, come to just over 5 million pounds, the same as the 2012 quota for the commercial halibut fleet in Area 3B, in the western Gulf of Alaska, and almost twice as much as the quota set for Area 2C, in Southeast Alaska.

The prospect of a 5 to 15 percent reduction might not seem like much, but it is a start, Wedin said.

"We know they're not going to reduce it to zero, we don't expect that. We just want to get things started to where they start trying."

Wedin said it is time for the trawl fleet to share the pain.

"All of us have suffered. The longliners have been cut by 50 percent since they were issued their quota, charters are constantly under attack to go down to one fish, subsistence users are having to go farther and farther to get their fish. All halibut are stressed. Trawlers haven't been reduced, the cap hasn't been visited since 1986."

The trawl fleet has not been shut down for reaching the cap since 2004, when 700 metric tons of cod was left on the quota. There was a cleanup fishery by the pot and jig fleet to catch the remainder.

There are ways to reduce the halibut bycatch, but it takes longer for trawlers to catch their target species, and they probably will not do it unless someone makes them, Wedin noted.

He said he listened online to some of the public testimony at the bycatch workshop in Seattle, and one trawl fisherman said he uses halibut excluders on his net in the Bering Sea, and that they work, but he lost 20 percent of his production per tow as a result. He said that was simply unacceptable.

"I was thinking to myself, well, 20 percent, that's pretty good. You keep 80 percent (of your production), you lose 20 percent, but you exclude the bycatch we're talking about," he said.

Wedin pointed out that that was the perfect example of why the cap needed to be lowered, and why other people affected by the trawlers' choices need to stick up for themselves.

"We need to demand this," he said. "Alaskans need to stand up and say 'we want this done.'"

Wedin was not as optimistic as some about 100 percent observer coverage, which goes into effect next year, causing trawlers to fish cleaner. He said he had talked to some observers and some trawl captains who told him that trawlers know when they have a "dirty" tow, with lots of halibut bycatch, and if they have an observer on board they will dump the tow without bringing it aboard.

"The observer, even though he sees that, he knows that, it doesn't go into the book," he said. "That's just anecdotal. He has to be able to actually sample them for it to be recorded."

There is broad community support to lower the cap. The Homer City Council and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly both passed resolutions noting that halibut plays an important role in the economy of Southcentral, and that "every pound of halibut caught as bycatch results in a direct loss of yield and spawning biomass of the halibut resource," and asking NPFMC to "take meaningful final action now by reducing Gulf of Alaska halibut bycatch by at least 15 percent."

Seward and Whittier are considering similar resolutions.

Wedin is urging everyone, fisherman or not, to sign the petition requesting the same action, saying it does hold sway with NPFMC. AMCC produced a petition with about 650 signatures on it protesting high chinook bycatch at a NPFMC meeting last year that included the names of people that were leaders in their various fisheries.

"That was backed up by the signatures of 600-plus other people that were sport fishermen, or commercial fishermen, or subsistence fishermen, all across the board. It impressed the council quite a bit," he said. "I think it really helped."

Wedin said the goal this time is to get 1,000 signatures.

The petition is in Captain's Coffee, Two Sisters and K-Bay Caffe. It also can be signed online at the AMCC website, www.akmarine.org.

The website also includes talking points and information for people considering writing opinion letters or testifying at the meeting in Kodiak.

Audio archives of the bycatch workshop and other information can be found on the IPHC website, http://www.iphc.int/home.html.

The NPFMC website is http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/.

Cristy Fry is going fishing for the summer. Seawatch will return in October. The Homer Farmers' Market column will begin next week.