You can read about both sides of the issue on the internet. Read the small boat halibut fishermen’s perspective on the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association’s website here and read about the Amendment 80 Trawl Fleets P.O.V. here.
Here’s my perspective. I think most people will agree that bottom trawling is one of the most destructive fishing practices there is. The trawls themselves destroy habitat and the fishing method is rather indiscriminate, scooping up whatever lies in the path of the trawl. As the sea life is brought to the surface its under enormous pressure, which its unlikely to survive before being dumped on deck. Sure, over the decades trawlers have made improvements to their gear, trying to lift if off the bottom or building in different types of extruders to help non-target species escape. I applaud the dedicated scientists and engineers that are doing work in this field.
But to me, improving bottom trawling is like improving smoking. Cigarettes are bad for you, adding filters or reducing tar may make them a little less harmful but it can’t change their very nature. The bottom trawl industry would have you believe that they are doing their best to voluntarily reduce by catch (usually citing percentages, which I find meaningless out of context).
However, during public testimony at the NPFMC meetings this past week, several bottom trawler captains told the council that yes, they are trying to reduce halibut bycatch - but not because they care about the resource. They try to reduce halibut bycatch because they know that when they hit the cap, they are shut down. Those are their words, not mine.
One captain even told the council that he “relaxes” towards the end of the season if he still has halibut bycatch available. If a captain’s vigilance can reduce bycatch then let’s force them to be more vigilant by lowering the cap.
They say “we’re doing our best” but the information available, along with the trawlers own testimony, belies that statement. Scientific research shows that Prohibited Species Catch (PSC) rates trend up at the end of the season; one reason? Because captains “relax” once they know they aren’t going to hit the cap.
To those that say it’s an “allocation issue not a conservation issue” I have this response. If you don’t think that trying to reduce the millions of pounds of immature halibut that the trawlers dump back into the ocean dead and/or dying isn’t a conservation issue then I don’t know what is.
And I’ll paraphrase Peggy Parker who told the commission “Even if you don’t admit this is a conservation issue now, it’s going to be a conservation issue in the future”.
Yes, lowering the by catch cap is going to a hardship for the Amendment 80 fleet, but hardship can bring innovation. As David is fond of saying, “Necessity is the naked learning to knit.” Hesitating to act on conservation issues because they might cause economic hardship is a recipe for disaster. We need to stop being so shortsighted and act now to prevent larger issues in the future.
We’ll have an answer from the NPFMC in a bit here on what they are going to do to protect the halibut resource in the BS/AI, we’ll let you know what they decide.