Woodley & Anderson: Halibut

Excerpts from today's SeafoodNew.com article by Peggy Parker & John Sackton 

Chris Woodley, Executive Director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association of five flatfish trawl companies under Amendment 80, says everyone understands the importance of reducing bycatch, and says the Amendment 80 fleet has already been successful in reducing bycatch.  These reductions are reflected in IPHC and council data.   

“The concern we have,” Woodley says, “is that using the blunt tool of reallocation may not only not solve the problem, it could make it worse. A 50% reduction would shift the focus and make it ten times larger.  

“I think the biggest problem is the time crunch. There’s a large push to get this resolved in June. i think there’s probably some good ideas that have not come to the surface yes, as the Council is focused on the reallocation issue. 

Woodley says there’s a saying in the Coast Guard, his former employer: “If you want it bad, you get it bad,” saying there are potential tools like abundance based caps that have not been fully explored. 

“The other big thing for us is the Amendment 80 fleet employs some 2,000 people who work on our boats, they and their families are dependent on fishing jobs. 

“A 50% cut  would mean we would tie up our boats in June,” Woodley said. 

“Our efficiency on halibut  is .6%,” says Woodley. “Our target species is 99.4% of the catch.”

“The last thing I want people to know is how our cargo is handled. All our cargo goes to Dutch Harbor and is hauled away in containers or tramp vessels. It takes stevedores, tugs, marine pilots, millions of dollars and hundreds of people to get that cargo to its destination. We spent $45 million in fuel in Alaska last year.”

 

Jason Anderson, manager of the Alaska Seafood Coop, the largest of the two Amendment 80 Coops and the one that has worked the closest with the IPHC to determine ways to reduce halibut bycatch, takes a breath before he comments.

“Other people have made the argument of how much of an economic impact this would make on the Amendment 80 fleet if high cuts are put in, so I won’t repeat that.

“A lot of why I’m frustrated is we know how difficult this problem is. If you talk with a captain, they’re feeling squeezed.

“There are six different hard caps, all these different bycatch rules, and limits on species that aren’t hard caps but the Council has asked them to stay away from it, like salmon and pollock. 

“We can retain pollock up to 20% of the basis species. NMFS sees there is a lot of pollock bycatch and we get pressure from the pollock guys.

“Captains on AM80 vessels have a different job than other skippers - they have to make money like everyone, but they spend a lot of their time avoiding other fish.  They use every skill they have to make sure the haul is what they’re after, otherwise they have to move away.”

Another constraining species for the flatfish fleet is Pacific cod. “The hard cap that is part of the Am80 species group, the ratio of cod to target species is only 10%.”

Anderson says the current closed areas were established before the crab and halibut fisheries were rationalized and are antiquated. 

“It’s not a race for fish anymore.  We now have hard caps.  Something that would really help us with bycatch would be to open more of those areas to catch targeted species. You can watch the fleet follow a school of targeted species right to the boundary of a closed area, then go around it and wait on the other side for the school to emerge. There’s no reason any longer to keep those areas closed.” 

Amendment 80 vessels have a clear incentive to avoid halibut bycatch. The vessel permit has a history of each vessel, and each quota that is assigned to each vessel. When a vessel doesn’t perform to standards, there are penalties. 

“The criminal and financial repercussions are so high that we all make sure this doesn’t happen, Anderson says. “The dynamic that sets up is you have this incentive at the beginning of the year. There is a limit, but we set a smaller limit so we have some buffer.”

The Alaska Seafood Coop is experimenting with a deck sorting procedure that could reduce halibut mortality even further. Using that and/or halibut excluders may reduce halibut bycatch by 20 percent.

“We’re working hard on what we can do to meet that goal,” Anderson says. 

Read more on this Issue - Agenda Item C-2 223rd Plenary North Pacific Fishery Management Council Meeting