Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Story Behind Halibut Bycatch Pushback

Just why is the trawl fleet and its spokesmen being so intransigent about cutting a little shaving off their prohibited species bycatch of halibut?  The pushback against any cut is evident in the Kodiak Daily Mirror where Bob Krueger is grandstanding about just how badly any diminished allowance of waste of halibut will hurt Kodiak's economy.  Expect more emotional and heated testimony when the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council considers their options for final action on scaling back a tiny sliver of the PSC bycatch after over 23 years of resource abuse.  But why such pushback?

Is it because the future holds more scrutiny of the observer program, which both the AP and Council members have admitted is badly broken, and heavily gamed?  If income taxes were only examined 30% of the time and taxpayers knew (as the draggers do) exactly in which year tax returns were to be examined, would the IRS expect to find more cheating? 

At least seventy percent of the days at sea that draggers operate are not observed and reported. 

As draggers know, if the observer program tightens up, if the actual level of halibut PSC bycatch is observed, draggers are going to need every pound of halibut PSC bycatch they can get.  They will be clearly over the limit and their fishing time will be curtailed.  This is why they are afraid, and why there is so much pushback.  Go figure.  If thirty percent of dragger trips are observed, and they are reaching the halibut PSC bycatch limit, based upon projections of the cleaner fishing they arrange to be observed, the other seventy percent of the time is, according to reliable crew witnesses, very dirty indeed.  Halibut PSC bycatch can be five times worse than observer projections when draggers target arrowtooth, according to witnesses, who were dragger crew, and found themselves unable to turn a blind eye to the waste.

Can draggers fish cleaner?  Possibly.  Some skippers are clearly more skilled at clean towing.  On the other hand we all know the names of the skippers whose reputations for resource destruction are local legend.  And then there are those who sincerely just don't give a damn.  Because skippers are not usually the owners of these vessels, they are pushed to produce, damn the bycatch.  The owners say, "You do whatever it takes to bring that boat back full, or you will find yourself looking for another job!"  To solve this problem, each vessel should be apportioned a given amount of bycatch.  When a dragger reaches the limit, they are shut down.  But remember anytime there is a penalty for exceeding a limit, the rate of cheating goes up.  Again, this is why all the pushback.  Draggers know how badly they are hammering the halibut stocks, and they keep their secrets, because exposure would have economic consequences.  The stridency in their battle against fair controls of their waste is a measure of how badly they are abusing the resource and gaming the observer system. 

One way to find out if draggers can fish cleaner might be  to cap and trade the PSC bycatch.  The clean skippers can then sell their PSC underage to the dirty guys who need it to keep fishing.  This would give the Council an idea of how clean draggers can fish and then the Council can further tighten the controls to achieve sustainable fisheries.  Dirty operators would be forced out of the fishery by the competition.  If the Council cared...

But none of this will make a particle of difference as long as the cheating and gaming of observed tows runs rampant.  When greed pushes operators to fish without reliable oversight, we will have the cheating and gaming; the truths about PSC bycatch will continue to be passionately denied.

Will the Council have the courage to do the right thing?  It sounds like the NMFS is softsoaping the new observer program to give the draggers more opportunities to game the system, thereby disabling the new and improved observer system.  Much more scrutiny will be needed if we are not to witness a continuing degradation of the Gulf of Alaska.


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