Sunday, June 3, 2012

Guest opinion: A chance to make fishery cleaner

(This Guest Opinion appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, Friday June 1st, 2012.)

"At the end of the day, rebuilding the halibut stock is of critical importance to all of us here in Kodiak."

By Pete Thompson

Let’s talk facts.

First, contrary to what some would have you believe, the halibut resource is in trouble. Not only the number of fish available to the commercial fishery is in decline, but in the Gulf of Alaska the total biomass of the stock is also going down.

No one really knows what the problem is. While competition for food with halibut or arrowtooth flounder is a hypothesis, scientists don’t have information to confirm this. At a recent bycatch workshop, a panel of 12 experts couldn’t reach a conclusion from the current science about what is causing the decline.

The real point is that arguing about why the halibut are declining is akin to fiddling while Rome burns. While further research is needed to determine what’s going on with the halibut resource, the most important thing now is doing everything we can to protect the rebuilding potential of the stock. That’s why commercial halibut fishermen have taken reductions in their catch in the Gulf of 60 percent on average. And that’s why it’s only fair that the trawl fishery accept a much smaller reduction in their halibut bycatch limit of 15 percent.

While we don’t know what is causing the decline, we do know that trawl bycatch has a direct impact on the halibut resource. Every pound of halibut taken as bycatch results in a direct loss to the halibut fisheries of one pound of halibut. Even more concerning, every pound of trawl bycatch results in a loss of approximately two pounds of female spawning biomass.

The only way the halibut resource is going to recover is if we protect the future of the resource, and the small fish caught in the trawl fleet are precisely the fish we need to preserve the halibut resource for our grandkids.

Not only are these halibut important to the resource, they are important to sport, charter, subsistence and commercial users. Overall, there are 2,351 individuals who own halibut quota share, 601 halibut charter permit holders, over 4,770 subsistence users and countless sport fishers in the Gulf. All of these users are currently bearing the costs of the lack of bycatch reductions. The benefits, on the other hand, go to a small group of about 70 vessels that participate in the Gulf groundfish trawl fisheries.

Yes, the halibut fishery has waste, too. The fish which are below the minimum size limit. But to say this number is the same as the bycatch number takes some interesting math. According to the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s 2012 Blue Book, in the Gulf in 2011 wastage in the commercial fishery was 1,739,000 pounds. Bycatch was 4,424,000 pounds. That means the bycatch was 2.5 times the wastage in the commercial fishery.

A recent guest opinion piece cited information that a 15 percent reduction in the bycatch limit would result in losses of $8.45 million. This number assumes that the fleet can do nothing to change its behavior and limit bycatch. In reality, bycatch avoidance is a behavior, and one that can be changed given the will to do so.

There is also another way to look at this. Reductions in the halibut bycatch limit don’t have to mean the fleet stops fishing. This could be an opportunity to switch to cleaner fisheries. The shallow water flatfish fishery (rock and butter sole) is one of the dirtiest in terms of halibut bycatch. Looking at the average 2003-2010 ex-vessel value in the fishery, the value of the halibut caught as bycatch, had it been sold in the directed halibut fishery, was approximately twice that of the value of the target fishery. A recent guest opinion talked about halibut paying off. It looks like in this example they are worth about twice as much to the directed halibut fishery.

At the end of the day, rebuilding the halibut stock is of critical importance to all of us here in Kodiak. After 20-plus years of the status quo, the council will be meeting right here to make this important decision. Thousands of sport, charter, subsistence and commercial fishermen across the state of Alaska and beyond agree: It’s time for the trawl fleet to share in rebuilding our resource.

Alaskans like to think of themselves as strong advocates for sustainable resources. In this year of 2012, it is increasingly frustrating to watch gear groups waste over 5 million pounds of halibut in the Gulf of Alaska as a “cost of doing business.” Let’s pull ourselves out of the “dark ages” and do what is right for the resource and not just for a small group’s bottom line.

Pete Thompson is a member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What's become of the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim river Chinook salmon fisheries? Are people forgetting that we have not had a directed King Salmon season for so many years that the people are getting to be so desperate to have the Bering Sea Pollock fisheries to close down for at least five to ten years until the fresh water salmon come back to at least a decent enough population to get back how they use to be?