The city of Sitka has gone on record in support of efforts to reduce the amount of halibut wasted in Alaska’s trawl fisheries.

The Sitka assembly this week (Tue 5-22-12) unanimously approved asking the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to lower the cap on trawl bycatch when it meets in Kodiak in June.

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The cap on bycatch for gulf trawlers has been in place since 1989. It’s just over five million pounds of halibut per year.

Bycatch is the unintentional harvest of another species in a commercial fishery. In this case, trawlers are dragging nets on the ocean bottom for species like pollock, and catching quite a few halibut along the way. Those halibut have to be discarded.

This presents a problem for the hook-and-line fishermen who make their living catching halibut. The trawl bycatch used to be a much smaller proportion of the overall amount of halibut caught by commercial fishermen.

According to Linda Behnken, with the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association, it’s not so small anymore.

“At this point, the number of halibut that are killed as bycatch on a coastwide basis is equal to the number of halibut that are taken in the directed fishery. The commercial longline fishery.”

Behnken was soliciting the support of the Sitka Assembly, who – though Sitka is home to a large longline fleet – has not often taken a position on federal management issues.

Halibut stocks have undergone steep declines over the last few years. Cuts to harvest levels in Southeast Alaska have been particularly painful.

“We’ve seen a 75-percent reduction in the commercial catch limits to allow the stocks to rebuild. There’s been a 34-reduction in the allocation to the charter fleet, also to take pressure off the stocks. We hear from sport and subsistence fishermen that they’re having difficulty meeting their needs. And over this same time period there’s been no reduction in this bycatch limit.”

Behnken served three terms on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, where she was no stranger to conflict with the trawl fisheries. She was a key player in banning trawlers from Southeast waters. She found plenty of support on the Sitka assembly.

“I don’t think you’re going to find any love lost between anyone in Sitka and the trawl fleet.”

Thor Christianson is an assembly member.

“Biomass fisheries are dirty. To me there’s not much difference between a floating monofilament gillnet and a trawler.”

Behnken told the assembly that it had been a long battle, but the Council was finally ready to consider cutting the halibut bycatch limit in the Gulf of Alaska by three possible amounts: 5-, 10-, or 15-percent.

Behnken said she thought the cuts should be much deeper, but the trawl fleet was pushing back, arguing that they had not been given the management tools to make significant reductions in bycatch, without harming their capacity to fish economically.

There are 47 trawlers in the gulf, many based in Kodiak. There are 1,400 longliners. The economic impact of the declines in halibut stocks and harvests has been widely felt in Southeast.

Again, Thor Christianson captured the mood of the assembly.

“Yeah. I strongly support this. And if there’s anything we can do to help push it below 15-percent – because I know the commercial catch has been cut a whole lot more than 15-percent.”

The assembly resolution, which was sponsored by Mim McConnell and Phyllis Hackett, urges the Council “to take meaningful action now by reducing Gulf of Alaska halibut bycatch by at least 15 percent.”

The vote went quickly, for a group that sometimes has trouble finding consensus.

“Mr. Esquiro – yes. Mayor Westover – yes. Mr. Reif – yes. Mr. Christianson – yes. Mr. Blake – yes. Mrs. Hackett – yes. Ms. McConnell – yes. Motion passes.”

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council will take up the issue at its meeting in Kodiak on June 6.