IPHC sets 2017 halibut harvest, adopts charter rules and allocations
Halibut catch limits rose for the third year in a row on Jan. 27, this time by 5 percent, marking another year that the commission has gone millions of pounds north of the recommendations of its staff scientists.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission, a joint U.S.-Canada body, sets the catch limits for halibut from the West Coast to Alaska every year.
At their 93rd meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, the six IPHC commissioners voted to increase the total Pacific halibut quota from 29.9 million pounds in 2016 to 31.4 million pounds in the coming 2017 season that begins in March.
For the third year, the commission has set the harvest limits above the recommended levels, known as the “blue line” — which a commissioner called “useless” during the meeting.
The blue line number presented by staff biologists was for 26.1 million pounds at the commission’s interim meeting in December 2016.
In 2016, the commission also set the harvest levels above the blue line by 3 million pounds.
This is a notable difference from the U.S. federal policy.
At the eight regional fishery management councils, harvest limits may not exceed the overfishing limits set by the Scientific and Statistical Committee.
The blue line estimated by IPHC staff is based on incomplete information, according to analysis, particularly on the concept of “exploitable biomass,” or how many halibut can be sustainably removed.
“The concept of exploitable biomass is no longer a relevant factor,” said Canadian commissioner Paul Ryall, who works for the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “If the scientists are telling me they’re estimating something based on a flawed understanding of the resource…how can the output be any longer relevant?”
Indeed, IPHC scientists have been warning the commission of its model’s shortcomings in the last year.
“The scaling of the current harvest policy revolves around the concept of exploitable biomass (EBio), which is based on externally derived selectivity curves that are not representative of the current stock assessment results,” wrote Dr. Ian Stewart in a missive to the IPHC.
Among other problems, IPHC scientists can’t effectively split the overall biomass into each of the regulatory areas.
Instead, Stewart advocates a different, more complete model that will allow the commission to clearly break out area-specific information.
Other than the Aleutians chain and the Eastern Bering Sea, which have static allocations, every regulatory area under commission purview will have an increased harvest limit in 2017.
• Area 2A (West Coast): 1.33 million pounds, up from 1.14 million pounds last year
• Area 2B (British Columbia): 7.45 million pounds, up from 7.3 million pounds last year
• Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 5.25 million pounds, up from 4.95 million pounds last year. Guided charter anglers will have 915,000 pounds of this total.
• Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 10 million pounds, up from 9.6 million pounds last year. Guided charter anglers will have 1.9 million pounds of this total.
• Area 3B (Western Gulf): 3.14 million pounds, up from 2.71 million pounds last year
• Area 4A (Aleutians): 1.39 million pounds, the same as last year
• Area 4B (Eastern Bering Sea): 1.14 million pounds, the same as last year
• Area 4CDE (Central Bering Sea): 1.7 million pounds, up from 1.66 million pounds.
Charter rules, allocations
The commission also adopted guided angler rules recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in December.
Area 2C will have a reverse slot limit of one fish of 44 inches or less or one longer than 80 inches with no annual limit and a one-fish daily bag limit.
In 3A, or Southcentral Alaska, anglers have a two-fish bag limit, with a size limit for one of those fish of 28 inches, one inch less than last year.
Guides are limited to one trip per calendar day.
Anglers have an annual limit of four fish, the same as last year. Wednesdays will be closed all year.
The council also added three Tuesday closures between July 18 and Aug. 1.
The rise in harvest limits is the latest in a pattern over the last two years, following intense discussions, arguments and regulatory tightening over declining halibut stocks and the impacts on Pribilof Island communities dependent on them.
Before the last three years of increases, the halibut harvest took a dive over the previous decade by more than 70 percent as the biomass grew but the number of commercially harvestable fish 32 inches or longer declined.
In the last two years, however, IPHC scientists have said the stocks are leveling out.
Further, one of the larger sources of halibut mortality has declined. In the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, groundfish trawlers incidentally catch halibut, known as bycatch. Since 2014, bycatch has dropped nearly two million pounds for the groundfish trawlers in the Bering Sea.
The recent drop in bycatch is part of a larger trend.
Bycatch in non-halibut fisheries has fallen steadily from a height of 20 million pounds in 1990 to the present level of 7 million pounds — the lowest bycatch level since 1960.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].