The North Pacific Fishery Management Council raised pollock quota for 2016, but only by half the requested amount, locked in by the two million metric ton cap for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fishery.
The 2016 pollock limit for the Eastern Bering Sea is 1.34 million metric tons, a 30,000 metric ton increase from the 2015 limit but less than half the 65,000 metric ton increase the Advisory Panel recommended and the pollock biomass could’ve handled.
Groundfish — which includes pollock, Pacific cod, and flatfish — is capped at two million metric tons per year. Any increase in one species’ total allowable catch, or TAC, shaves the same amount from one or several others.
Brent Paine, executive director of pollock-heavy United Catcher Boats, said he was disappointed not to get the full 65,000 metric tons increase, but understood the council’s inability to go beyond its boundaries.
“It was just the 2 million ton cap,” Paine said. “You just have to balance the user groups. But (30,000 tons) is better than nothing.”
Pacific cod, the second most voluminous species in the groundfish fishery, took a only a scant 1,320 metric ton cut, from 240,000 in 2015 to 238,680 in 2016, despite the cod fleet having harvested almost 30,000 metric tons less than allowed in 2015.
To round up the extra pollock tonnage, the council cut flatfish quotas. Flatfish, particularly yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder, and rock sole, are the main species whose harvests result in halibut bycatch.
Arrowtooth flounder took an 8,000 metric ton cut, from 22,000 metric tons in 2015 to 14,000 metric tons in 2016.
Northern rock sole dropped 12,150 metric tons from last year, from 69,250 in 2016 to 57,100 metric tons in 2016.
Yellowfin sole took a 5,000 metric ton cut, from 149,000 metric tons in 2015 to 144,000 metric tons in 2016. Flathead sole lost 3,150 metric tons, from 24,250 metric tons to 21,000 metric tons.
Flatfish are mainly pursued by the Seattle-based Amendment 80 fleet, all vessels of which are represented by industry group Groundfish Forum.
“It’s a challenge when you have levels of abundance and a 2 million metric ton cap,” said Groundfish Forum Executive Director Chris Woodley. “It’s a very big cut to our sector.”
The council could have taken some of the needed tonnage from the cod fleet, who only harvested 218,000 metric tons of a 240,000 metric ton quota in 2015 and may have had room to spare. Flatfish stakeholders said the split could have been fairer.
“Flatfish and cod didn’t get fully harvested last year, and this year’s cuts came from flatfish,” said Woodley. “We’d like to see more equity there.”
Woodley said he recognizes the council’s flatfish cuts were halibut-related.
The council agenda has revolved around halibut bycatch to some degree since late 2014. Halibut biomass is dropping, causing a disconnect between the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s directed halibut quotas, which vary with biomass, and the North Pacific council’s halibut bycatch limits, which are stationary. Halibut fishermen get less and less of the shrinking halibut pie.
The council’s Advisory Panel had recommended that the council add a full 65,000 metric tons to the pollock limit in part because the species could use a pressure valve. Pollock biomass in the Bering Sea ballooned to an estimated 11 million metric tons in 2016.
Halibut protection factored into considerations, though not as far as some advocates believed was necessary. The council avoided installing a provision that would tie halibut bycatch directly into the TAC-setting process, an idea pressed by the Advisory Panel through Jeff Kauffman.
Kauffman is the vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and the recent appointee to a commissioner seat on the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
The recommendation would have required groundfish TACs to be determined “taking into consideration species bycatch rates” specifically related to halibut and halibut fisheries.
Kauffman’s proposal even included economic analysis developed by Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association economist Ray Melovidov, which Kauffman intended to be used as a tool for industry to see how such halibut-centric TAC-setting would look. The council did not adopt the recommendation.
“I think we do take into account bycatch but not just of halibut,” said member Craig Cross, who authored and introduced the final harvest allocations. “I would like to keep the TAC-setting with what we’ve always done, which is take into account not only halibut, but crab, and herring. Halibut is the one that’s most critical now, but a year from now it might be crab. Who knows what it will be down the line.”
Council member Duncan Fields introduced a similar motion that specified bycatch considerations for all species in the TAC-setting process.
Taking bycatch into consideration is already part of the fishery management plans, and Fields’ motion calls for no specific calculations. Rather, Fields believes the motion provides makes the bycatch considerations explicit and public.
The motion passed, but only after Cross’ allocations had been unanimously approved. The council agreed with the publicity angle.
“I think it’s extremely important we adopt this as a policy so that people know we’re serious about bycatch,” said Jim Balsiger, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seat on the council.
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.