Halibut managers seek ways to study bycatch

International halibut commission asked to reconvene work group

Posted: Thursday, March 04, 2010

As the commercial halibut season prepares to open Saturday, running through Nov. 15, fishery managers are still discussing the best way to measure the impact of bycatch and what it means to other harvests in the Northwest Pacific.

During the annual International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting held in Seattle earlier this year, the commission and attending advisory boards discussed halibut bycatch management. Bycatch is a species caught during another commercial fishery season, and in some cases is lethal to the fish caught.

With expressed concerns from Canadian fishermen, the commission was asked to reconvene the Bycatch Work Group that first addressed these issues in 1989. At that time, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) had implemented an observer program on domestic vessels and provided an overview of halibut bycatch mortality with data collected through 1991.

"The issue here is, as a result of research during past years' fisheries, we have realized that halibut are moving more than we had assumed they were," IPCH Executive Director Bruce Leaman said. "That has meant that our impacts of bycatch are now estimated to be more extensive ... than we had previously thought. Over the last decade or so, we had been thinking that bycatch was primarily local in its effect but it is more extensive than that. So that tends to make bycatch in U.S. waters have an impact on Canadian waters."

Halibut are caught as bycatch in the North Pacific by most fishing gear groups, primarily by trawl, longline and pot trap.

The IPHC does not have the resources to operate an observer program so they rely on federal programs, which are overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service for bycatch estimates as well as other research studies. An observer is trained and certified by NMFS to accompany commercial fishing vessels on fishing trips and record information about the boat, gear, species caught and discarded, fish length and biological samples.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans provides observer data to the IPHC from Canadian waters. According to the IPHC, the Canadian observer program provides a more stable fishery with less variation in its bycatch rates. Canadian trawlers, for instance, are required to have 100 percent observer coverage on board.

In the United States, observer coverage depends on vessel size. Vessels above 125 feet are required to have 100 percent compliance. Boats between 60-125 feet are required to be at 30 percent, and observers aren't required for vessels under that length.

"The Canadians have a much better system for bycatch control where there are individual bycatch caps for each of the trawlers that are working, for example, in the trawl fishery in B.C.," Leaman said. "Where as in the United States it tends to be a global cap for all of that sector. In general it is still not an individual responsibility in the U.S."

Leaman gave a presentation at the NPFMC's February meeting stating the issue's new importance. He said the impacts on halibut bycatch are estimated to be different than before. The NPFMC wants the IPCH to review existing bycatch information and calculationsestablished in 1991, and then consider what reasonable bycatch rates should be going forward from this point.

The NPFMC would like to see a progress report at the IPCH's interim November meeting, but no firm timeline has been established to define new objectives.

"Right now it is a work project in front of the commission staff and working with some of the agencies in the U.S. and Canada," Leaman said. "Not a lot has changed in terms of the trawl fisheries, but different abundances of target species have an affect on how much bycatch there is."

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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