As halibut decline, Alaska Native fishers square off against industrial fleets

The tiny fishing fleet from St. Paul is losing the fight for halibut, up against factory ships that throw away more of the valuable fish than the Indigenous fishers are allowed to catch.

Halibut are the primary target for Indigenous fishermen in parts of Alaska. Populations are declining, leaving less fish to go around, especially as factory trawlers are scooping them up with the other fish they catch.
Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy

Each year in mid-June, Father John, dressed in long black robes, heads to the small boat harbor on St. Paul, a tiny island of 500 souls in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s the start of the fishing season, and the Blessing of the Fleet is a community affair, an opportunity to give best wishes to the fishermen heading out into the unforgiving northern waters in search of halibut.

The island’s small, independent fishing fleet of only 15 vessels needs all the help it can get: Far offshore, factory trawlers targeting other fish species net and chuck overboard as waste millions of pounds of the valuable fish each year. “They’re killing our halibut,” says St. Paul fisherman Myron Melovidov, who fishes with his grown sons.

Pacific halibut are flat and bottom dwelling, and can weigh hundreds of pounds. About 20 years ago, the population started taking a dive, and St. Paul fishermen—as well as halibut fishermen across Alaska—faced increasing cuts in their harvest limits.

"A lot of people had to fold,” says Jeff Kauffman, a member of the St. Paul fishing fleet whose kids have grown up fishing on his boat.

St. Paul fishermen say their future depends on those out-of-state boats wasting fewer halibut, which can fetch five times the price of the fish species the trawlers are targeting. The trawl industry has said it can’t cut halibut bycatch without dramatic cuts to its overall harvest, and without incurring significant financial losses.

With the Bering Sea as the rearing grounds for young halibut that as adults end up throughout the Pacific as far south as Oregon, the stakes are extraordinarily high for Alaska’s fishermen as fisheries managers meet this week to decide how to parcel out this shrinking resource. For St. Paul fishermen in particular, the halibut bycatch issue is also a question of justice and the right to harvest the marine resources that exist essentially in their front yards.

Warming’s effects becoming clear

St. Paul lies 300 miles from the Alaska mainland, and the waters of the Bering Sea that surround this treeless outpost, one of the five Pribilof Islands, have for time immemorial fed an inordinately productive food chain. Millions of fish-eating seabirds nest on the islands each year. The largest breeding colony on Earth of northern fur seals pup here on beaches each summer. And for generations, abundant seafood has fed Native subsistence harvesters and lured fishermen from all over the world. Today, fisheries in the region are an economic engine  worth more than $2.5 billion.

But things are changing. Warming temperatures are wreaking havoc in the Bering Sea. Once-lucrative crab fisheries are crashing. Some species—such as pollock (the flaky white fish in a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich)—are charging north, following the retreat of the “cold pool,” an area of super-chilled water at the foot of the sea ice that separates northern Bering Sea species from more southerly ones.

And other fish, like king salmon and halibut, are shrinking; in the 1980s, a 20-year-old halibut could weigh 120 pounds. Now it might weigh 45 pounds, scientists said. The impacts of climate change are “unprecedented, unpredictable, and not incremental,” explains Bob Foy, director of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which monitors more than 50 commercially harvested species in the waters off Alaska.

While Alaska prides itself on having the best managed fisheries in the world, Alaskans often look to the East Coast as prelude to what could play out in their waters. Atlantic halibut were once so plentiful they were considered a nuisance by cod fishermen. Then, in a matter of decades, fishermen working by hand from small boats in the late 1800s fished them out almost completely. These days off the New England coast, George Maynard of the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance explained, catching a halibut is like “catching a unicorn.”

Today, the 2,300 or so halibut fishermen in Alaska fish with longlines anchored to the seafloor that stretch for miles and are strung with scores of baited hooks. As they and others have invested in this fishery—buying new boats, securing harvest quota (which they must buy or lease to fish for halibut)—they’ve seen their catch limits plummet with the decline in halibut.

Fishermen are fishing for smaller and smaller portions of a shrinking pie. Melovidov says that he was once guaranteed an annual harvest of 60,000 pounds of halibut. Now his fishing quota is only about 20,000 pounds, and scientific models predict a continued drop in halibut populations.

Trawlers aren’t feeling the pinch

The Bering Sea vessels 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, nearly 10 percent of the value of all seafood processed annually in Alaska, the nation’s biggest seafood supplier.

These companies target low-value fish—most wholesaling for less than a dollar per pound—in contrast to halibut, which can fetch $4 or $5 per pound. The bulk of this fish is sent to China for additional processing. Some will eventually return to the United States, ending up in the freezer aisle of grocery stores. Some of the harvest is ground into fish meal.

Waste is an unavoidable part of the operation. The great maw of the trawl net—which can be wider than a six-lane highway—doesn’t discriminate. 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.

Regulations stipulate that independent fisheries observers be on the vessels at all times; they sort through portions of each haul and report on bycatch. And over the last decade, the fleet has reduced the number of halibut killed, in part by introducing deck sorting, which means that rather than sending the contents of a trawl net directly to its demise in tanks belowdecks, the crew separates out the halibut and discards them over the gunnels. The fleet estimates that deck sorting can save the lives of about half of the halibut caught in the trawl, but the long-term fate of a fish smashed under 30 tons of other fish in the gigantic net is dubious.

As halibut populations have dwindled, the fishermen who hunt them in the waters around St. Paul have seen their yearly harvest limits slashed by regulators; currently they’re allotted only 1.7 million pounds. Yet regulators have allowed Amendment 80 trawlers to waste staggering levels of halibut—nearly four million pounds—without reducing their bycatch limits on par with the cuts to fishermen’s quotas. “We have to bear the entire burden of conservation,” Kauffman says. Numerous trawl industry representatives declined to comment for this story.

Trouble with trawlers

It isn’t just halibut fishermen who are furious. Last year, trawlers caught more than half a million tanner crab as bycatch in a region where, this year, crab fishermen were prohibited from setting pots because of low population numbers. And over the past two years, longliners who target sablefish—a high-value species with rich, oily flesh—watched as Bering Sea trawlers caught three and then five times their allowable limit of this species without facing fines or other repercussions.

“Hopeless,” is how David Bayes describes the situation. He is a charter captain in Homer, a tourist destination a four-hour drive south of Anchorage. All summer long, Bayes captains a 10-seat boat with customers from as far away as Florida and Germany who pay upwards of $300 trying to hook halibut. In recent years, he’s faced increasing limits on his business, from closing first one and then a second day per week to fishing, restricting the size of fish a customer could keep, and limiting the number of fish that could be taken home over the entire season.

Meanwhile, last year, trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska, where Bayes operates, were allotted more than 3.5 million pounds of halibut bycatch. “They fish themselves out of house and home and then they move on and leave everyone else to clean up,” he says.

Erik Velsko, who fishes halibut and sablefish out of Homer, says that fishermen like him feel far outrigged by the trawl sector, which includes the Amendment 80 fleet and other trawl vessels. “We can’t compete,” he says.

At meetings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets the bycatch limits, longliners with decades on the water but no formal training find themselves up against highly educated, well-prepared trawl industry representatives. “Half of them haven’t even been on a boat,” Velsko says. Fishermen are likewise suspicious of what they see as a cozy relationship between fisheries managers and the trawl industry as numerous state and federal fisheries professionals are recruited to jobs in the industry.

The issue of justice

For many of the fishermen on St. Paul, the issue of bycatch is about justice. For 200 years, the Indigenous Unangan people of the Bering Sea region (also known as Aleuts) were exploited first by Russian traders and then by the U.S. government, which took over a lucrative fur seal industry from the Russians upon purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Over generations, the federally run fur seal harvest on St. Paul relied on forced labor from the Unangan people, giving them rations in return and rendering them wards of the state. When the U.S. government shut down fur operations in the early 1980s because of a dwindling seal population, it committed millions of dollars to help transition local residents to self-reliance by getting a new economy—commercial fishing—off the ground.

With federal support, the local tribal organization purchased fishing boats, set up a processing plant for halibut, and brought in a Norwegian fisherman to teach locals how to read charts and make gear. Fair access to the marine resources around the island is the only way the community can sustain a fishing economy, explains Phillip Lestenkof, a Unangan elder and captain of the 33-foot Niqax̂, his aluminum longliner named after the traditional word for skin boat.

Years of pressure on fisheries managers finally might make a difference. This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is discussing a new way of managing the Amendment 80 sector’s bycatch: tying bycatch limits to the size of the halibut population, just as harvest limits for halibut fishermen—and nearly every other fishery—wax and wane with the stock.

But the trawler companies are fighting it. “We don’t see any practicable way to reduce bycatch from where it’s at,” Chris Woodley, a trawl industry representative, said at a council meeting last fall.

In the face of climate change, the fight between halibut fishermen and trawlers, which is pitting different users of the same resource against each other, might be a distraction from a larger question: What can these changing marine ecosystems bear?

According to Jon Warrenchuk, a senior scientist with the marine conservation group Oceana, fisheries managers’ focus on commercial species in the bycatch debate is myopic. “They should think about ecosystems, biodiversity, and all the roles these animals play in the food web,” he says.

As the council’s decision-making process plays out in the days and months ahead, there will be many points of contention, but perhaps all sides can agree that in the face of dramatic environmental change, there’s no wiggle room for waste.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization.

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