During the International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting in Portland, I’ve learned many facts, figures, issues, problems and most shockingly, a big reason for declining juvenile halibut numbers.
The Bering Sea in Alaska is the major halibut spawning area and the Bering Sea Shelf, an area that expands for miles, is prime juvenile halibut habitat. Many years ago the IPHC created a massive “Closed” area in this mostly flat sandy area in an effort to provide a nursery for these young halibut. And according to IPHC tagging records, these juvenile halibut from this area migrate throughout Alaska, B.C., Washington, Oregon and into California. As one IPHC researcher told me, “These are everyone’s halibut.”
What a great idea, to have a closed area to allow juveniles to thrive without commercial or recreation activity. But here’s the problem, IPHC can only restrict halibut anglers within their convention, which means they have no control over the trawl industry. The commercial trawl industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that targets groundfish that include yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder, etc. They drag the bottom and capture their targeted species as well as juvenile halibut, the very halibut this area was intended to protect.
In 2017 the trawl fleet killed, as by-catch, 867 metric tons of halibut! That’s 1.9 million pounds of halibut — a number larger than Area 2A’s halibut quota. These juvenile halibut average four to six pounds. Using the high number of six, that’s a total of 316,667 small halibut.
This is what’s happening to our halibut recruitment — BIG billion dollar business is killing our juvenile halibut — the future of the fishery.
How can we stop this?
The only way this massacre can stop is to convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to acknowledge this closed area and stop trawling in this closed area. But, as you may or may not know, the National Marine Fisheries Service is an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce. Department of Commerce equals BIG business. Maybe when the halibut fishery declines to a point of collapse NMFS might come to their senses and do what’s right for the halibut fishery and conservation.