Halibut cut likely for 9th year in row


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Halibut catch limits could be cut for the ninth year in a row.

Despite changes to the stock assessment model and a new format for harvest advice, the news the International Pacific Halibut Commission heard from staff at its interim meeting was the same as it has been since 2005: the number of harvestable halibut has declined, and catch limits are following suit.

Under the most likely scenario, the coastwide harvest from California to the Bering Sea would be 22.7 million pounds, down from a 33.54 million pound catch limit in 2012.

That limit is less certain than in prior years, as the commission, or IPHC, changed how staff harvest advice was delivered. The new format provides a range of possible harvests, along with potential effects of each harvest size. No decisions were made at the interim meeting, as catch limits will be set at the January annual meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, Jan. 25.

The 22.7 million pound limit is the number that most closely matches last year’s harvest strategy.

The potential 2013 cut comes after a sizable cut from 2011, when the limit was 41 million pounds, to 2012, when it was 33 million. The 22.7 million pound limit would be a 33 percent decrease.

The 22.7 million pound limit is paired with a likely total removal from the fishery of 40.2 million pounds of halibut, due to bycatch and other mortality.

Alaska’s portion of the 22.7 million pound limit would be 17.41 million pounds, down from 25.5 million in 2012. That number includes an increase in the harvest forecasted for Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, because the model showed an increase in exploitable biomass for the area. Southcentral, or Area 3A, is in line for another cut, possibly to less than 10 million pounds compared to nearly 12 million pounds in 2012. Such a reduction could lead to cuts in bag limits for charter anglers to something less than the current two fish of any size limit.

The harvest numbers were coupled with advice about potential impacts of each option.

At the 22.7 million level, Chief Assessment Scientist Ian Stewart said there is an 82 percent chance that the 2014 spawning biomass will decrease compared to 2013, and a 48 percent chance of a reduced target amount to exploit in 2014. But the 2014 decrease would likely be relatively small; there’s just a 3 percent chance that the spawning biomass would decrease by 5 percent.

Higher and lower harvests lead to different probabilities of the various outcomes, but every option — including no harvest at all — has at least a 95 percent chance that the 2016 spawning biomass will be smaller than it is in 2013.

That’s because other factors are at play beyond just fisheries removals in the coming years. There’s a new model calculating — more accurately, IPHC scientists think — the size of the stock, and uncertainty over recruitment.

Stewart, the IPHC’s new modeler hired over the summer, said biomass actually increased slightly compared to prior years because older fish are growing, but there’s not a strong signal for halibut just entering the fishery.

“What we see, is a period starting in 2001 onward…of below average recruitment,” Stewart said.

Now, the fishery is seeing the effects of that, as it takes 10 or 11 years for the fish to mature and move through the fishery, Stewart said.

“The legacy of these poor recruitments is going to continue to be there,” he said.

For now, decreased size-at-age is also impacting the total exploitable biomass. What happens to that trend in the future is difficult to predict, Stewart said.

He also cautioned that looking beyond a few years out is difficult, in part because of all the unknowns involved in the fishery.

Stewart explained that he removed retroactive bias from the model, making the numbers more accurate, but also meaning that the whole fishery looks a bit smaller than it did in the past.

When the commission meets in January, it will be tasked with setting halibut catch limits, either at the level that reflects the past harvest level, or by changing the harvest strategy and choosing a different number. The commissioners will also have the ability to look at how the harvest is apportioned between the ten regulatory areas.

Steve Martell, another new scientist at the IPHC, also talked about an ongoing review of the commission’s halibut harvest rate policy. Because the work is ongoing, he didn’t recommend any specific changes, but he also declined to support the current policy.

That review links to another effort that will come up at the January meeting, which is the creation of a Management Strategy Advisory Board.

That body would develop a process to evaluate alternative management procedures for the Pacific halibut fishery, Martell said.

The board would be comprised of harvesters, managers, processors, IPHC staff, scientists, and others, totaling about 15 to 20 people. It could look at catch rate targets, provide technical advice on model components, determine the level of risk the commission wants to allow in its harvest strategy and compare management procedures.

Essentially, it would help keep the model grounded in reality and provide another check for the commission’s management.

“I think what’s very important is to have outsiders looking (in on) our process,” Martell said.

The new board would meet for the first time in 2013, with a goal of presenting to the commission at the 2014 annual meeting.

Those changes weren’t the only ones the commission heard about.

The new format for staff harvest advice was part of a move toward risk-based assessments. But the commission is also making a shift toward more transparency in its decisions and processes. As part of that effort, the entire interim meeting other than an administrative executive session, was webcast. Come January, the annual meeting will also be webcast — and the public will be able to attend more sessions than in the past, including the commission deliberations over harvest limits that have been closed to the public. The annual meeting is schedule for Jan. 21 to Jan. 25.

Those are just some of the results of a performance review completed in this past April regarding the IPHC’s processes. IPHC Executive Director Bruce Leaman talked to the commission about some efforts to incorporate the review’s suggestions, such as the transparency moves. The commission will revisit those and other suggestions in the future.

Despite all the efforts to improve modeling and management, IPHC staff said one of the biggest needs is a better understanding of the fishery. To that aim, they also presented a five-year research plan.

Leaman said staff is working on the five-year plan, which would be updated regularly and act as a guide to the annual plan. The plan would focus on stock assessment and identification, management strategies, biology and ecology, and prioritize projects. Included are tagging efforts, and ongoing trawl surveys to monitor juvenile abundance.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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