There are very few things in life quite as exciting as pulling a giant halibut over the rail. For Alaskan sportfishers, fishing for halibut is something we spend the winter looking forward to. Charter fishing businesses throughout the state help provide this opportunity to Alaskans, and to the many tourists for whom a halibut trip is a major draw that brings them to Alaska.
Yet this important resource is in trouble. The exploitable biomass–or the amount of halibut which can be harvested by fishermen–in the Gulf of Alaska has dropped 58% in the past 10 years. Commercial catch limits in the Gulf have been reduced by 60%. Charter halibut fishermen in Southeast Alaska have been restricted to only catching one fish of any size and then one fish less than 37 inches in recent years. While the limit in Southcentral Alaska has stayed at two halibut of any size, if these downward trends in the halibut stock continue, you can bet that restrictions will come to Southcentral soon enough.
While halibut charters and the commercial halibut fishery have taken drastic cuts in their catch limits as the halibut stock has taken a turn for the worse, there is one sector which has remained largely untouched by these cuts: the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery. Today groundfish trawlers and hook and line fisherman are allowed to catch a combined total of 2,300 metric tons–over 5 million pounds–of halibut as bycatch each year without penalty. This means that more halibut is taken as bycatch each year than the amount of Gulf halibut harvested by Southeast and Southcentral sport fishermen combined! And while halibut fishermen have taken dramatic cuts in recent years, the halibut bycatch limit has remained largely unchanged since 1989.
After 20 years of the status quo, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages the groundfish fisheries and their bycatch, is finally considering a reduction in the bycatch limit. While commercial and charter fishermen might not agree on a lot, we agree on this: it is long past time for the groundfish fishery to share in the conservation of the halibut resource. I urge all Alaskans who care about the halibut resource and want to be able to continue to fish for halibut to urge the Council to reduce the halibut bycatch limit by 15% (the maximum reduction being considered). The Council takes this issue up June 6-8 at their meeting in Kodiak. Also contact the Governor and tell him how important it is to protect our halibut resource. You can reach the Governor at (907)465-3500 or email@example.com.