Outside of Southeast, more halibut cuts likely in 2014


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Less halibut is likely to cross Alaska docks in 2014 with another round of cuts recommended by International Pacific Halibut Commission scientists. Only Southeast Alaska is in line for an increase in harvest, with the charter sector receiving about the same amount as in 2013 under the new catch sharing plan.

Photo/File/AJOC

The preliminary numbers for 2014 halibut catches would mean cuts for most of the west coast, including Alaska, compared to 2013, but it’s unclear if those numbers will become the real limits.

Under the “blue-line” catch limit recommendations announced at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s Dec. 4 and 5 meeting in Seattle, coastwide total removals would be about 36.4 million pounds, with a commercial halibut harvest of about 24.5 million pounds for 2014.

That could mean about 18.74 million pounds for Alaska, down from about 22 million pounds in 2013, although it’s hard to make a direct comparison due to a change in how the numbers are calculated now.

The estimates are based on the IPHC’s stock assessment and the current harvest policy. Under a treaty between the U.S. and Canada, the IPHC is responsible for setting halibut catch limits in the Pacific Ocean from Northern California to the Bering Sea.

The presentation also included other possible catch limit options, and the impacts they would likely have on the stock.

A final decision on the catch limits will come at the commission’s January meeting in Seattle. Last year, the commission elected to adjust the harvest upward from the blue-line recommendation, and did not maintain the exact apportionments of the harvest.

The blue-line estimate is based on harvesting about 19.7 percent of the exploitable halibut biomass. The commission’s limits last year resulted in an allowable harvest of about 24.4 percent of the biomass.

IPHC Executive Director Bruce Leaman presented what the blue-line catch limit would mean apportioned out to each fishery. Leaman said Dec. 5 that the commission based its apportionments on the new catch sharing plan, or CSP, being enacted in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS.

NMFS announced Dec. 9 that the final rule for the CSP would be published Dec. 12, and the plan will be implemented in 2014. (See story, page 9)

The catch sharing plan combines the halibut catch limit for the commercial and guided sport fishing sectors, and is intended to be implemented in 2014.

Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, is the only area managed by the IPHC that had an increase in harvest recommended. Commercial fishermen would have access to 3.32 million pounds in the directed fishery, guided anglers would have access to 760,000 pounds, and about 8,000 pounds would be factored out for wastage (wastage refers to halibut that die after being released).

In 2013, guided anglers in Southeast were limited to a guideline harvest level, or GHL, of about 788,000 pounds in that area. The commercial catch limit was about 2.97 million pounds.

In 3A, or the central Gulf of Alaska, the directed commercial fishery would have a quota of 7.32 million pounds, guided anglers would have a limit of 1.78 million pounds, and 330,000 pounds would be factored out for wastage. In 2013, guided anglers were limited to a 2.73 million pound GHL in that area. The commercial catch limit was about 11.03 million pounds.

Unguided anglers are factored out separately in each area, and do not count toward those limits.

The commercial catch plus wastage for the other areas in Alaska are as follows under the blue-line apportionments:

• 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.84 million pounds, down from 4.29 million pounds in 2013.

• 4A (Alaska Peninsula): 850,000 pounds, down from 1.33 million pounds in 2013.

• 4B (Aleutian Islands): 820,000 pounds, down from 1.45 million pounds in 2013.

• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 640,000 pounds, down from 1.93 million pounds in 2013.

The value of the halibut fishery in 2013 was estimated at $105 million by the National Marine Fisheries Service when it sent out IFQ billings this year — that’s abut $32 million less than the 2012 value, and cuts could mean another decline.

True limits unknown

There’s little certainty that the numbers presented as the “blue-line” will become the catch limits for each area, according to those in the industry.

Each November or December, commission staff announces the likely harvest for the following year during the interim meeting. Then, in January, the commission sets the exact limits.

In the past, the staff forecast has been similar to the eventual catch limit, but a change in how the information is presented has reduced that certainty, making it more difficult for managers and stakeholders to prepare for the upcoming season.

Andy Mezirow, a charter operator in Seward who also fishes commercially, said he didn’t think the IPHC would go with the blue-line estimate for 2014. More likely, he said, the catch limit will be higher — whether or not that is what is best for the halibut.

Last year, the commission adjusted the numbers upwards from the blue-line. The 2013 catch limits were less than the year prior, but more than the harvest policy dictated.

The 2013 limits were meant to reflect knowledge that the stock was at a time of low abundance and a cut was needed, but mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of the cuts to fishermen and the communities that depend upon them. At that time, however, the commissioners indicated that cuts could be steeper in the future.

“We made a small step toward a conservation direction this year… But I don’t think we’ll be able to retain those small steps in the future,” said American Commissioner Jim Balsiger, Alaska region administrator for the NMFS, at the conclusion of the 2013 IPHC meeting.

The commission can also adjust some areas more than others. British Columbia has in the past received a larger upward adjustment, citing bycatch issues in Alaska areas.

This year, fishermen from the Bering Sea have also formally asked for their own upward adjustment.

Stock status update

Despite the uncertainty over 2014 catch limits, there’s a little more certainty about the stock status than in years past.

According to Ian Stewart, the IPHC’s quantitative scientist, the Pacific halibut stock seems to be at a low point in terms of abundance, but it may have leveled out.

Stewart, who joined the IPHC last year, has been working to update the model since the last assessment was finished. Last year, he was tasked with getting rid of a retrospective bias pattern in the model.

This year, he said he worked on building comparative models to confirm the numbers the model was producing. Then, Stewart used an ensemble of models to estimate the halibut biomass. That means that the biomass estimate used for the harvest possibilities was made based on multiple models, rather than just one.

Stewart said the models predicted an exploitable biomass of about 170 million pounds in 2014, and a spawning biomass of about 197 million pounds. That’s similar to the 176 million pounds and 198 million pounds of exploitable and spawning biomass, respectively, estimated by the model used last year.

Stewart said the new models incorporate more historical data and other information about the stock.

He also told the commission that the decline seen in recent years appears to be leveling off, as the model suggested might happen in last year’s assessment. As a result, the stock will likely be more responsive to management measures in the future than it has been in the past few years.

Survey data also suggests that the commission shift the apportionments slightly to better reflect where halibut was seen. The limits presented would increase the 2C proportion of the catch, and decrease it in Area 4A.

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

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