Concern for future of Alaska halibut fishery

January 28, 2013, 4:37 pm

Seafood News logoAlaska halibut catches were not slashed as badly as people feared, although they still continue on a downward trend - and the outlook is grim, writes Laine Welch.

A coast wide catch of 31 million pounds was approved on Friday by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a decline of 7.5% from last year, and far better than the 30% cut that was widely anticipated. Alaska's share of the Pacific catch is 23 million pounds, down 2.5 million pounds across the board.

The IPHC commissioners, three from the US and three from Canada, each said the 2013 annual meeting last week was the toughest one ever.

“I vote for the fish,” said US Commissioner Ralph Hoard at the close of the meeting via webinar. “Many questions remain about halibut bycatch and migration. While I am extremely sympathetic about the impacts on fishermen's economics, I am equally concerned about their future in this fishery. We don't want to end up like the East coast halibut fishery. There is none.”

Along with setting the catch limits and fishery dates (see below), the IPHC addressed several regulatory proposals, none of which were approved.

A recommendation for less invasive circle hooks to be the only legal gear was tanked due to “regulatory difficulties.” Circle hooks do less damage to the fish as they are hauled aboard.

“The commissioners are anxious at any possible time to reduce damage to fish and prevent needless mortality. So we are going to ask the IPHC staff to work on a public outreach mode, and to develop materials working with fishing groups to provide education on how circle hooks might be used more efficiently and more broadly through the industry. We have problems regulating it so we are going to focus on that for the time being,” said Commissioner Jim Balsiger, who also is director of NOAA Fisheries in Alaska.

Halibut charter operators, who often remain out for a few days with clients, again proposed that frozen fish held on board should not be part of the possession limit. Balsiger said he agreed that the regulation does provide some hardship for that sector, but added: “Unfortunately we have not been able to find a way to deal with the enforcement issues, so we have asked staff to continue working on this.”

The eight hundred pound gorilla in the room remains the millions of pounds of halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries. While the halibut fleets have seen their catches cut by 70% over three years, and the sport sector is now limited to a single fish in Southeast Alaska (two in the Central Gulf), the allowable bycatch limit tops five million pounds a year just in the Gulf of Alaska. (Bycatch limits are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, not the IPHC.)

The halibut managers outlined four bycatch objectives to be undertaken by a “project team” - examining current amounts, better understanding of bycatch on the fishery and the resource, looking at options to reduce bycatch, and exploring options for mitigating the impacts of bycatch on “downstream” areas. Seven longer-term options will be explored as to feasibility and practicality, and a report will be available this summer.

Paul Ryall, a commissioner from Canada seated at his first meeting, pointed out that “bycatch mortality is the second largest source of removals coast wide, after the directed halibut fishery”.

“At a time of low halibut abundance in the North Pacific, and at a time when the stock assessment warns of low recruitment coming at us, we do think bycatch mortality of all halibut, and in particular juvenile halibut, is critical,” he said. “I urge all stakeholders to keep the pressure on their respective governments and management agencies to adopt the best practices and the newest technologies, and I know that we can bring bycatch mortality down substantially in the next few years.”

Bycatch aside, Commissioner Balsiger put the industry on notice that the outlook for future halibut fisheries is quite bleak.

“We made a small step in a conservation direction this year and reduced the catch by some 2 ¼ million pounds - but I don't think it is likely that we will be able to retain those small steps towards conservation into the future,” Balsiger said. “The likely risk in a one year period with these long lived animals is not that great, but in multiple years that risk gets greater. So we have some difficult years ahead of us.”

The 2013 halibut fishery will run from March 22 through November 7. Here are the Alaska catch limits by region in millions of pounds. Last year's catches are shown in parentheses.)

Area 2C (Southeast) -- 2.97 (2.62m - the only area getting an increase)
Area 3A (Central Gulf) -- 11.03 (11.98)
Area 3B (Western Gulf) --4.29 (5.09)
Area 4A (Alaska Peninsula) --1.33 (1.56)
Area 4B (Aleutian Islands) --1.45 (1.86)
Area 4CDE (Bering Sea) 1.93 (2.46)

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