If you've ever encountered halibut, it was probably as a tasty — and pricey — entree. But in Alaska, it's the subject of a fierce fish battle. On one side are small family-owned fishing boats. On the other, an industrial fleet delivering seafood to the world. This weekend, federal managers are trying to decide how both sides can survive.
In the middle of the Bering Sea, a fishing vessel is hauling in a 50-foot net. It looks like a stocking packed with fish, their mouths wide open and gasping for breath. John Nelson has been the captain of the Rebecca Irene for 20 years. His 35-man boat is part of a Seattle-based fleet that fishes these waters around the clock, January through December.
"We're talking about a tremendous amount of jobs. We're talking about a tremendous amount of a low-cost protein source that is utilized worldwide," Nelson says.
The Rebecca Irene is a trawler — it tows a net along the ocean bottom, scooping up everything in its path. Most of the fish then goes to China for processing — and from there, around the globe. Some makes it back to the U.S., landing in the frozen food aisle.
But here is the controversy. Mixed in with the cheap yellowfin sole and arrowtooth flounder is expensive halibut, one of the iconic species of the North Pacific. At the store, it can go for $24 per pound.
The Rebecca Irene can't keep that halibut: Trawlers aren't supposed to catch it, and the law requires any halibut that are caught be thrown overboard.
"We have no control over that," Nelson says. "We're forced to discard halibut. It's a prohibited species for us. We can't even eat it."
That accidentally caught halibut is called bycatch. Last year, almost 9 million pounds of bycatch was dumped, dead, in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. And this is a point of contention with those who actually do fish for halibut.
Simeon Swetzof Jr. has been a halibut fisherman for more than 30 years. He's also the mayor of St. Paul, a town of about 500 people, mostly Alaska Native Aleuts, in the remote Pribilof Islands.
"You meet people on the street, talking to people anywhere, Seattle, other places in the country here, [and they say,] 'Oh, halibut! I love halibut.' Well, guess what? It comes from where we live, out in the Bering Sea, and down here in the Gulf of Alaska," Swetzof says.
There isn't much of an economy in St. Paul. Most families rely on halibut for a big chunk of their income. They're part of Alaska's thousand-strong commercial halibut fleet, small boats that fish with longlines and hooks. The vast majority of those boats are family-owned.
But in recent years, because of concerns about halibut numbers, the amount that fishermen are allowed to catch has dropped. Meanwhile, the amount of bycatch the big boats can take — and discard — has stayed essentially the same.
In the Bering Sea, halibut fishermen have seen their share cut so low that last year, there was more halibut thrown overboard by the big boats than was caught by the small boats. If the trend doesn't change, fishermen in St. Paul face the potential of a complete shutdown.
With his community's future on the line, Swetsov choked up as he testified this week before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates bycatch in federal waters off of Alaska. "I'm extremely angry that we're here today," he says.
Swetzof and others asked the council to cut the amount of bycatch allowed in the Bering Sea by 50, calling the status quo unacceptable.
"We live right out in the richest ocean in the world, practically, and we're going to see this happen to us, in our own backyard? No! We'll fight it!" Swetzof says.
But the industrial fleet says they've already done a lot to reduce bycatch, and anything more would be devastating, putting their boats — and crews — out of work for most of the year.
The council is expected to vote on the issue this weekend.