Halibut Bycatch

What is halibut bycatch?

Halibut bycatch occurs when halibut are brought onboard trawl, hook-and-line, or pot fishing vessels targeting groundfish, such as pollock or Pacific cod. These vessels don’t intend to target halibut and often don’t have halibut Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ), so the halibut is brought on board incidentally and called prohibited species catch (PSC).  The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) limits the amount of PSC harvest and creates management measures for the groundfish fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI).  PSC limits and management measures conserve the halibut stock and maintain the fisheries which directly target halibut, like the charter and longline industries.

Bycatch History

Foreign groundfishing fleets of the 1960s and 70s caught thousands of tons of halibut as bycatch before they were phased out by the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) and subsequent creation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).  Before the MSA, the U.S. could only limit foreign fishing vessels if they were within 12 nautical miles of shore.  The MSA extended that authority out to 200 nautical miles.  Foreign fishing in U.S. waters was phased out by 1990, but U.S. fleets didn’t have any halibut bycatch management and incidental harvest rose once again.  In response, the NPFMC began setting halibut bycatch limits and management measures for groundfishing across seasons by sector and gear type.  Monitoring efforts and bycatch estimation models were then created, and have been changed and improved over time.

Modern Day

For all IPHC management areas, total sport landings in 2015 comprised 16% of the halibut removals, while bycatch was 19%.  In 2016, they were matched at 17%.  In 2017, sport catch passed bycatch rates, 19% sport to 14% bycatch.  Most of this bycatch comes from the Central GOA (area 3A) and the BSAI; only a small percentage of the bycatch is allotted to Southeast Alaska.

GOA bycatch reduction measures (discussed in the articles below) were halted by the NPFMC in December 2016.  During the development of action alternatives and stakeholder input, taking any action became increasingly contentious.  The alternatives would impact harvesters, processors, crew, local communities, and support industries, and all were weighing in, each stressing the potential negative outcomes of the suggested options.

The NPFMC reduced BSAI halibut PSC across sectors and gear types by a total of 21% in 2015.  This reduction was significant, but failed to account for the varying nature of the halibut stocks.  Notably, when the amount of halibut available to harvest went down for the directed fisheries, the PSC limit stayed the same and bycatch became a larger portion of total harvest.  In 2016, a workgroup began looking at opportunities to tie halibut PSC to halibut abundance.  This action is still active within the NPFMC process.

June 2016 NPFMC Meeting – GOA Trawl Fishery

The June 2016 North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meeting ended today after five days of discussion surrounding Gulf of Alaska (GOA) groundfish trawl fisheries.  The GOA groundfish fishery does not have the quota system most Alaska fisheries are known...

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NOAA Works to Address Bycatch

Over the next few weeks, NOAA Fisheries will make several announcements highlighting their efforts to monitor, understand, and address bycatch in U.S. ocean fisheries. Collectively these announcements contribute to a broader conversation about how we ensure that...

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Recent NPFMC Action on Halibut Bycatch

The Council reviewed a discussion paper on elements of the previously proposed framework for a new GOA trawl management structure, which was set forth in October 2014. The Council took action to add several options to the pre-existing Alternatives (Alternative 2 and...

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The Problem

Over the past decade, more than 62 million pounds of halibut has been caught, killed, and discarded as bycatch in the Bering Sea/ Aleutian Islands. During the same period, landings of halibut as the target species have declined from an already alarmingly small 52 percent of the total removals to only 34 percent of removals.

Conservation measures implemented over the past 15 years to address declining halibut stocks have fallen disproportionately on the backs of halibut fishers all over the state. While the bycatch limit for the BSAI trawl fleet has hardly changed catch limits for Individual Fishing Quota owners have been cut by 70 percent, and charter fleet harvests have been reduced by 50 percent in some waters.