AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If you've ever encountered halibut, it was probably as a tasty and pricey entree. In Alaska, it's the subject of a fierce fish battle. On one side, small family-owned fishing boats. On the other side, an industrial fleet delivering seafood to the world. This weekend, federal managers are trying to decide how both sides can survive. Rachel Waldholz of member station KCAW sent this report.
RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: In the middle the Bering Sea, a fishing vessel is hauling in a giant net. It looks like a stocking packed with fish, their mouths wide open as if 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.
JOHN NELSON: 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.
WALDHOLZ: 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. A lot makes it back to the U.S., some 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 a pound, and 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.
NELSON: We have no control over that. We're forced to discard halibut. It's a prohibited species for us, so we can't even eat it.
WALDHOLZ: That accidentally caught halibut is called bycatch. Last year, almost 9 million pounds of bycatch were dumped, dead, in the Bering Sea and the 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 Alaskan Native Aleuts, in the remote Pribilof Islands
SIMEON SWETZOF: You meet people on the street, talking to people anywhere - in Seattle, other places in the country - and hear, oh, halibut. I love halibut. Well, guess what? It comes from where we live, out the Bering Sea and down here in the Gulf of Alaska.
WALDHOLZ: There isn't much of an economy in St. Paul. Many 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 long lines 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 more was 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, Swetzof choked up as he testified this week before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which regulates bycatch in federal waters off Alaska.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SWETZOF: I'm extremely angry that we're here today.
WALDHOLZ: Swetzof and others asked the council to cut the amount of bycatch allowed in Bering Sea by 50 percent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SWETZOF: 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.
WALDHOLZ: But the industrial fleet says they've already done a lot to reduce bycatch. They say 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. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Waldholz in Sitka.