ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten speaks, while other council members, including Bill Tweit of Washington (right) look on. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten speaks, while other council members, including Bill Tweit of Washington (right) look on. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

After several days of emotional testimony, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted on Sunday afternoon (5-7-15) to reduce limits on halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea — by 21-percent overall.

Many in the groundfish fleet say it will take a big toll on their industry. But halibut fishermen in the Bering Sea say the cut isn’t big enough to save their communities.

The debate often pitted small boats against big boats, and Alaska’s halibut fleet against seafood companies largely based in Seattle — and in the end, the vote didn’t please many people.

Downloadable audio

Alaska council members David Long (left) and Simon Kineen were forced to recuse themselves. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Alaska council members David Long (left) and Simon Kineen were forced to recuse themselves. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Public testimony stretched over three days, as longliners from Southeast asked the council to save the halibut stock; crewmembers on Bering Sea trawlers asked the council to save their livelihoods; and residents of St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, asked council members to save their community.

Halibut bycatch has been a simmering issue at the council for more than twenty years, but it’s come to a head as halibut biomass has dropped over the last decade. Halibut fishermen across Alaska have seen cuts on the order of 70-percent, while the the amount available as bycatch hasn’t been reduced by an equivalent amount.  More halibut is now taken as bycatch by trawlers targeting other species in the Bering Sea than caught by halibut fishermen there.

This has hit few areas as hard as St. Paul.

“If we don’t have a job, if we can’t go out to the ocean where we live, the waters that surround our community, and earn our living from the bottom from the ocean, that would completely change our identity,” said Jeff Kauffman, of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. “And to sit there on the beach and watch as the industrialized fisheries continue to take halibut, if we don’t have a fishery, I just think that’s absolutely wrong.”

Kauffman asked for a 50-percent reduction in bycatch caps.

But industry officials told the council that they’ve already taken major steps to reduce bycatch, like using nets that exclude larger halibut, and changing when and where they fish. They said there simply isn’t more they can do, except fish less.

That prospect terrified Brian Lang. He’s the deckboss on the F/V Vaerdal, a Bering Sea trawler. He says it’s one of the few jobs where he can make a living wage.

“And the reality that I’m facing right now is, anything over a 20-percent cut, I’m liable to be out of a job,” Lang said. “That means that I’m 36, having to start over from the bottom, with no education, and a family to take care of. It’s scary.”

After nearly 150 people testified, the discussion moved to the council. Alaska Fish & Game Commissioner Sam Cotten proposed a 29-percent cut in the caps, calling it “the bare minimum” to protect Bering Sea halibut fishermen.

But the council ended up adopting a smaller cut, proposed by Bill Tweit of Washington State. Tweit said anything larger would be too steep for industry to absorb.

Alaska council member Duncan Fields said the final vote wouldn’t provide relief for communities like St. Paul.

Linda Behnken, head of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, testified before the council on Saturday. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Linda Behnken, head of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, testified before the council on Saturday. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

“I acknowledge on a personal basis my identity with the folks living in Western Alaska, And their loss of economic opportunity, personal identity, and cultural legacy,” Fields said, choking up. “I get it.”

Meanwhile, Tweit said he saw his proposal as just the first step in a longer process – a message that didn’t sit well with a Sitka audience full of halibut fishermen.

“I don’t want anybody to leave this meeting feeling like this was a step backwards,” Tweit said, to angry shouts from the crowd.

The entire debate was shaken by a procedural curveball. In a controversial ruling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forced two Alaska council members to recuse themselves, because their employers have financial stakes in the groundfish industry. Ironically, the two support bigger cuts to bycatch.

Alaska normally holds a six-vote majority on the Council, while Washington State and Oregon appoint a total of four members, and the National Marine Fisheries Service holds one seat.

The final vote was 6 to 3, with the two recused members, David Long and Simon Kineen, indicating that they would have joined the three Alaskans who voted against the lower cuts. Alaskan Ed Dersham broke ranks and voted with the majority.

The final numbers are tricky: while the vote reduces the cap by about 21-percent, the affected fleets have been well under their caps in recent years. So the new cap is actually slightly higher than the total amount of bycatch taken last year.

But the cut varies among different groups. Flatfish trawlers in the so-called “Amendment 80 fleet,” which are responsible for most of the bycatch each year, took a cut of 25-percent  — or about 17-percent below last year’s numbers.

Chris Woodley is director of the Groundfish Forum, which represents many of those trawlers. He said that it’s a big hit.

“We’re extremely concerned about job loss in our fishery right now, about tying up vessels,” he said. “We need to sit down and assess the extent that this is going to damage our sector.”

For Myron Melovidov of St. Paul, the damage to his community looks devastating.

“We’re basically going to be put out of business. We’re shut d own. We’re sitting on the beach,” he said after the vote. “That really puts a roadblock on everything we’re trying to do for our community.”

In the end, all of the council members agreed on one thing: this isn’t their last word on the subject. As Bill Tweit told the audience, reducing bycatch is “squarely on the council’s agenda for awhile now.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will hold its next meeting in October, in Anchorage. You can find more information at the council website, here.