Sablefish Bycatch Surprise in the Bering Sea

The Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association (FVOA) and the Deep Sea Fishermen's Union (DSFU) became aware over the summer of the magnitude of the bottom trawl bycatch of Sablefish in the Bering Sea.

See the joint letter below submitted by FVOA and DSFU detailing our concerns about this potentially disastrous development with Bering Sea Sablefish bottom trawl bycatch.

The numbers are greatly increased and present serious concerns about accountability and the impact these bycatch levels will have on the directed fishery and rebuilding efforts for this important resource.

The total bycatch of bottom trawl Sablefish was 2,259 Metric tons (Mt). Additionally, we were informed that 1,281Mt had been discarded, 979 Mt had been retained and 450 Mt had been sold for human consumption. Half of this bycatch is from the Pollock fishery and half from the Amendment 80 fleet.

By allowing the total mortality of sablefish to reach close to the overfished level, all directed and non-directed fishing could face regulatory closures. The bottom trawlers have been required to discard sablefish since taking their allocation, but no fisheries have been shut down. Furthermore, the trawl overage currently threatens the Bering Sea sablefish Over Fishing Level (OFL). If the OFL is reached, all Bering Sea fisheries that take sablefish would be closed for the rest of the year.

We would like to hear from the National Marine Fishery Service how is it the trawl quota is 633 Mt. in the Bering Sea and how do they explain how 979 Mt was allowed to be retained? The National Marine Fishery Service allowing the bycatch to reach these levels makes a mockery of the assumption that we were saving fish to help rebuild this resource.

In August sablefish prices in Seward for our boats were roughly:

  • 7 lbs and above - $7.70 per pound

  • 5-7 lbs - $6.60 per pound

  • 4-5 lbs - $4.00 per pound

  • 3-4 lbs - $3.00 per pound

  • 2-3 lbs - $2.10 per pound

  • under 2 lbs - $1.45 per pound

The cost to industry on the loss of these discards now and in future results in millions of pounds of lost future catch, and tens of millions of dollars of lost revenues each and every year.

It is well known that sablefish have significant migration patterns. It is believed many of the younger fish in the Bering Sea ultimately migrate to the east throughout the Gulf of Alaska.

The Sablefish resource has recently been blessed with several above-average year classes, beginning in 2013/14. These young fish put on about 1 pound per year for females, less for males. It takes a year class 6-to-9 years to reach optimal market size before the pot and longline directed fishery can take advantage of these new-year classes. Having nearly 5 million pounds of bycatch of juvenile sablefish is not ever acceptable to us particularly if this is becoming an annual event.

If these bycatch numbers persist, resulting in the directed fishery having more precautionary harvest limits without verifiably effective, mitigating efforts by the trawl fleets. DSFU and FVOA will pursue the appropriate remedies.

At the October meeting, we request that the Council prepare a discussion paper on these bycatch levels and review any precautionary actions that can be taken in order to reduce and minimize the bycatch levels.

We will also request a full explanation of how the accounting is done with a trawl quota level of 633 Mt, yet a retention level permitted of 979 Mt and what management responses, if any, are being undertaken.

The Council will meet in Homer the first week of October.  Please let the Council know you support a discussion paper on these bycatch levels and that you demand a review of any precautionary actions in order to reduce and minimize these sablefish bottom trawl bycatch levels.

You can email the Council through their website at: https://meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/823 and post your comments under Agenda item C5.