Native Alaskan fishers are losing out to industrial fleet in the Bering Sea

In the Bering Sea, Native Alaskans are losing the fight for halibut, up against factory ships that throw away more of the valuable fish than the long-line fishers are allowed to catch, Miranda Weiss reports in FERN’s latest story, produced in collaboration with National Geographic.

Pacific halibut are flat and bottom-dwelling, and can weigh hundreds of pounds. About 20 years ago, the population started declining, and fishers faced increasing cuts in their harvest limits. It was especially tough on St. Paul, a tiny island of 500 souls in the middle of the Bering Sea.

The Bering Sea is the rearing grounds for the young halibut that as adults will end up scattered throughout the Pacific, as far south as Oregon. So the stakes were extraordinarily high for Alaska’s fishers, as fisheries managers met last week to decide how to parcel out this shrinking resource.

The Bering Sea ships responsible for the bulk of halibut bycatch are known as the Amendment 80 fleet, named after regulations that parceled out harvest quotas to a handful of Washington-based companies for bottom-dwelling fish such as Pacific ocean perch, sole and flounder. These ships are large — some longer than 200 feet — but the fleet is small. The five companies that make up the Amendment 80 sector net more than 600 million pounds of Bering Sea fish every year, a catch worth more than $300 million.

Each year, millions of halibut — mostly young ones, which crowd the shallows of the Bering Sea — are scooped up by Amendment 80 boats. Because the fleet’s harvest quota doesn’t include halibut, the vessels are required to throw these high-value fish overboard.

Fleet officials say they have already cut bycatch as much as they can. “We don’t see any practicable way to reduce bycatch from where it’s at,” Chris Woodley, a trawl industry representative, said at a fisheries council meeting last fall.