In Alaska the Pacific halibut is a revered fish, known for its large size and delicious flavor.  Alaska Native peoples have harvested halibut for thousands of years, relying on the fish for sustenance and more recently to support their far-flung rural communities in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.  That tradition is threatened by trawling vessels that drag large nets along the bottom as they seek other lower value, high volume fish which are often exported for processing into industrial food products.  The halibut killed in the trawlers’ nets as by-catch are discarded, either thrown overboard or disposed of in port.  In 2014 the trawling vessels killed seven times more individual halibut than the total number of fish caught by halibut fishermen in the Bering Sea. 

Studies of fishing harvest data demonstrate that many straightforward techniques effectively reduce by-catch.  Simply adjusting the timing of trawling to avoid halibut, targeting locations where there are fewer halibut, and relocating when the trawl nets encounter large numbers of halibut all significantly reduce by-catch. Despite the availability of these basic by-catch reduction techniques, over the last decade the trawl vessels have discarded and destroyed over 62 million pounds of halibut, the equivalent to 251 million meals. 

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The wanton destruction and waste continues unabated even as the halibut fishery has declined and the traditional (“hook and line”) halibut fishermen have seen their allowable allocation of fish decrease by over two-thirds to match the declining resource, barely enough fish to support their families.  The rampant destruction of juvenile halibut in trawler nets has been allowed for decades, while the available halibut resource throughout the North Pacific has declined to such an extent that some halibut fishermen face closure of their fishery.  Without a long overdue regulatory correction in the allowed trawler by-catch, Alaska Native halibut fisherman will be left “sitting on the beach” unable to continue to fish for the halibut that have sustained their communities for thousands of years.  Instead they will watch as trawlers drag their nets offshore and continue to destroy the halibut fishery.

This modern waste and greed seems unimaginable to most Americans and has no place in a responsible approach towards resource management. It is reminiscent of the mass buffalo killings on the plains in the 19th century when millions of bison were killed and left to rot, depriving the Native Americans of their means of subsistence, and ultimately leading to the destruction of their societies.  Fishing is the major economic activity in many of these Alaska coastal communities, with some Alaska Native communities facing economic ruin and cultural extinction if the halibut fishery closes.  Individual Alaska Natives are fearful they will not have enough money to put food on their tables and heat their homes this coming winter. 

For 20 years, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has not meaningfully adjusted the allowed by-catch limits downward for the trawlers.  Instead the NPFMC has repeatedly allowed reduction in the allocations for those hook and line fishermen actively seeking halibut. On June 1, the NPFMC meets to decide whether to finally limit the destruction and waste of this iconic fish.  Because action has not occurred for so long, it will require a major reduction in by-catch, about 50 percent, to preserve the remaining “maintenance” halibut fishery at a minimum level and begin the long process of restoring the halibut stocks.  The only question for many Alaska Natives is whether the NPFMC will have the courage to do the right thing, - allowing them to continue to fish for halibut and maintain their livelihoods and cultures.

Swetzof  is the mayor of Saint Paul Island, Alaska, in the Bering Sea. He is a lifelong subsistence halibut fisherman, and commercial halibut fisherman for over 30 years.