There’s no question that halibut caught by sportfishermen and the direct commercial fleet are worth more than halibut tossed over the side of a trawl vessel. What is in question is when this issue is relevant. For those of us who rely on a healthy halibut stock for our livelihood, the answer is always; for member of the groundfish fleet, the answer is not here, not now.
The Council is well into its process of creating an abundance based management (ABM) for halibut bycatch in the groundfish fleet. In other words, a tool allowing bycatch to fluctuate based on the overall health of the halibut stock – if there are more fish, the groundfish fleet gets more bycatch; if there are fewer, bycatch goes down. Figuring out how to do this seems to result in a roomful of people where less than a dozen understand the whole conversation. Staff is analyzing over a dozen indices and how they would work together to accurately estimate abundance for bycatch rates, while meeting Council aims like protecting spawning stock and providing for the directed fishery. It’s a heavy conversation considering that the groundfish fleet just reduced bycatch by 25%, to the lowest rates since we began measuring bycatch in the 1960s, at great expense.
At this meeting, the conversation continued to circle around whether ABM is a groundfish management tool or a tool to reduce bycatch. Members and testifiers also reminded decision makers that any management tool must be careful to avoid creating an incentive to use all bycatch instead of creating an incentive to reduce it. In sum, the groundfish fleet needs help, and this issue is headed down a long road full of conversations about the value of halibut and where priorities lie.