FISH FACTOR: More cuts to halibut harvest expected in 2019

Alaska fishermen are bracing for more cuts to their halibut harvest next year.

Results of this year’s surveys showed that the Pacific stock from California to the Bering Sea continues to decline, and will likely result in lower catches.

“We estimate that the stock went down until around 2010 from historical highs in the late 1990s. It increased slightly over the subsequent five years and leveled out around 2015 or 2016 and has been decreasing slowly in spawning biomass (total weight of mature fish to catch) since then,” said Ian Stewart, lead stock assessment scientist with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, at its interim meeting last week in Seattle.

The IPHC oversees the Pacific halibut resource and sets annual catch limits for the U.S. and British Columbia.

A summary of the 2018 data show that coastwide fishery landings were about 23.5 million pounds, a low for the last decade. For Alaska, the total halibut take was nearly 16.7 million pounds, 5 percent shy of the fishery limit.

Total halibut removals by all users, including bycatch, added up to 38.7 million pounds in 2018.

Sixty-one percent of the catch went to commercial fisheries; recreational users took 19 percent and 3 percent went for subsistence use. Halibut bycatch in other fisheries accounted for 16 percent.

Halibut bycatch in the Central and Western Gulf totaled 2.1 million pounds, nearly all taken by trawl gear. In the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, halibut bycatch is projected at 3.5 million pounds, primarily by Seattle trawlers fishing for flatfish.

The average price at the docks for Pacific halibut this year was $5.74 per pound, compared to $6.53 in 2017. Nearly 2,000 fishermen participate in Alaska’s halibut fishery. Catch limits for 2019 will be revealed by the IPHC in Vancouver in January.

Warm water watch

In recent years, IPHC scientists have included ecosystem impacts in their assessments of the Pacific halibut stock, such as how the fish are reacting to warming oceans.

At the IPHC meeting, Ian Stewart referenced the massive, warm blob in the Pacific Ocean from 2014 through 2017 and said remains of it appear to be hanging around.

“We’ve seen a continued presence of warm surface waters through the fall of 2018. It’s not quite the magnitude of the previous blob, but it is definitely different from what would be the norm in the North Pacific,” Stewart said.

“Particularly of note, and relevant to halibut in Region 4 (Bering Sea), which means halibut across the entire coast because much of the coastwide recruitment likely comes from Region 4,” Stewart added, “is the fact that there was virtually no sea ice in the winter of 2018 in the Bering Sea. And that led to no cold pool in the summer, that being a tongue of cold bottom water that extends southward, generally corresponding to the extent of ice cover in the winter time.”

The lack of that cold pool, he said, has caused big behavioral changes.

“It’s led to more than half the cod biomass being distributed in the northern Bering Sea north of the normal survey grid, and a northward shift as well of pollock, although not quite as extreme,” Stewart said. “We saw a shift as well in Pacific halibut on the order of about a 20 percent increase in density between 2017 and 2018 in the northern Bering Sea.”

The halibut scientists also track Pacific Decadal Oscillations that show recurring patterns of ocean/atmospheric climate variability. Stewart said the PDO is used as an index of halibut productivity.

“A positive PDO tends to correspond to relatively warm and relatively productive conditions in the North Pacific. On average, this tends to be correlated with the level of halibut recruitment, historically,” he said. “We have seen a period starting in 2014 of relatively positive values, with 2018 moving back to almost a neutral value.”

Salmon stats

The average chinook salmon caught by Alaska fisherman this year weighed 11.6 pounds and paid out at nearly $70 per fish, or more than a barrel of oil.

That’s just one of the interesting stats to come out of the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game’s 2018 salmon season wrap up. The fishery ranks as one of the most valuable on record to fishermen at nearly $596 million, and at just over 114 million salmon, one of the smallest harvests in 34 years.

The average ex-vessel, or dockside, price per salmon in 2018 was $5.20 per pound, up more than $2 from 2017. The average salmon price paid to Alaska fishermen was 98 cents per pound.

Each sockeye salmon was valued at $7 for fishermen, on average, and it was those fish that saved the day for a fishery that was a bust Gulf-wide.

Sockeyes accounted for 44 percent of the total 2018 salmon harvest and nearly 60 percent of the value. Statewide, fishermen caught 50 million reds valued at $350 million.

Fewer than 9 million of the fish came from non-Bristol Bay regions where catches were the worst in more than four decades.

At Bristol Bay, a catch of over 41 million reds was the second-largest ever. It also was the most valuable catch for fishermen, topping $281 million. After bonuses and postseason adjustments are added in, that could climb to more than $335 million, said Andy Wink, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Bristol Bay is home to the largest red salmon run in the world and the fishery accounted for 57 percent of global sockeye production this year. It’s the third year in a row that Bristol Bay has accounted for more than half of world supply.

Alaska Salmon Price and Production Reports for the key sales months of July and August show a first wholesale value of Bristol Bay frozen and fresh sockeye products was 36 percent higher than last year. The average wholesale value increased from $4.01 to $4.51 per pound and sales volume increased 21 percent.

Bristol Bay fishermen averaged $1.26 a pound for their sockeyes this summer, up from $1.02 last year, but 43 cents less than the average of sockeyes caught elsewhere.

At Prince William Sound, sockeyes paid out at $2.71 per pound to fishermen; Cook Inlet averaged $2.27; Kodiak fishermen got $1.56 and sockeyes averaged $1.23 per pound at the Alaska Peninsula. Fishermen in other Alaska regions averaged $1.69 for their red salmon.

Find more information about Alaska sockeye salmon at www.bbrsda.com.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
12/05/2018 - 11:41am

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