Halibut commission tackles management, research issues


Published:

SEATTLE — In addition to setting the 2014 catch limits, the International Pacific Halibut Commission discussed other fishery regulations, research and bycatch at its annual meeting.

The commission approved the various allocation plans throughout the Pacific, and provided charter management measures for Areas 2C (Southeast Alaska) and 3A (central Gulf of Alaska) based on recommendations from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Guided anglers will be limited to two fish when fishing out of Southcentral ports this summer, with the second fish limited to 29 inches or smaller in length. Charter vessels will also make only one trip per day.

That’s stricter than last year, when there was no limit on the size of the second fish and vessels could make multiple trips in a day. The daily limit mostly affects operators on the Kenai Peninsula, where multiple trips are most common.

The carcass of a filleted fish must also be retained on charter vessels now, because the size is limited.

For Southeast Alaska, guided anglers can keep one fish per day, and it will again be under a reverse slot limit: the fish must be 44 inches or shorter, or 76 inches or longer. That’s more restrictive than the 2013 management measures were, due to the decreased catch.

“Clearly, the commission took a conservative approach in the interests of the long-term health of the resource,” wrote SouthEast Alaska Guides Organizaton Executive Director Heath Hilyard in a statement. “We had hoped there might a modest upward adjustment over the blue line sufficient to help us return to the lower slot of 45 inches. However, as conscientious participants in the halibut fishery, we certainly understand the commission’s reasoning for adopting the numbers they did. Ultimately, the most important thing is the health and future of the resource.”

The commission gave the North Pacific council the green light to develop regulations that could allow halibut caught incidentally in the directed sablefish fishery to be retained in Area 4A.

That’s far from a done deal yet. The council still must go through its regular process to initiate and analyze a regulatory amendment. But the commission’s action allows it to do so — pots are not typically an allowable gear type for catching halibut.

Homer’s Don Lane, a new commissioner, said the action was a good way to start addressing bycatch, but noted that the action specifically intended for the retention to be the result of incidental catch, and that the commission didn’t want to encourage a pot fishery for halibut in the area.

The commission also had a report from its bycatch working group.

This year, the report is expected to be finalized, with any recommendations to be discussed further as part of developing a bycatch strategy. No immediate bycatch changes are planned.

Canadian Commissioner Michael Pearson talked about the need for national accountability, and said essentially it could be a way of having Alaska handle its bycatch much the way Areas 2A (Northern California) and 2B (British Columbia) have.

In those areas, there is less bycatch and more of the total halibut mortality is accounted for. In Alaska, however, the total removals included room for 11.4 million pounds of removals outside the directed halibut fishery this year, Pearson noted. More accurate accounting is also needed, he said.

“That 11.4 million is a guess,” Pearson said. “We know it’s a guess. It’s a guess because we don’t have enough full information from all regulatory areas about how much bycatch is being taken.”

After the meeting ended, American Commissioner Bob Alverson said the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages federal fisheries offshore from Alaska, would need to take the lead on addressing halibut bycatch in its waters. Homer Fisherman Malcolm Milne agreed.

“I think with this stock level, it’s more important than ever that (the council) takes definitive steps to reduce the bycatch,” Milne said.

The council has implemented bycatch reductions in the Gulf of Alaska — with 2014 being the first year of a phased-in 15 percent cut in the bycatch by trawlers and longliners — and in February will discuss Bering Sea halibut bycatch. The 15 percent cut over three years amounts to about 660,000 pounds of halibut.

IPHC staff also talked about 2014 research at the meeting.

This summer, the IPHC will begin the first portion of a five-year effort to expand its survey efforts and get some additional data about the stock of halibut throughout the Pacific.

The new sites for 2014 are in Areas 2A and 4A, with other areas to follow in subsequent years. The goal is to get a better sense of distribution and depth of halibut in each area.

The biggest addition would be seen in Area 4B, where 75 to 100 new stations would be included in the 2015 survey.

This year, IPHC staff also plans to work on several tasks including commercial catch per unit effort standardization, evaluating fixed catch allocations versus a survey-based biomass apportionment as a function of migration rate, and continue to enhance the ensemble model approach.

The commission also discussed its future meetings. Canadian Commissioner Paul Ryall will be the chair for 2014-2015, and the next annual meeting will be held in Vancouver, B.C Jan. 26-30, 2015.

The commission is also looking at having the 2014 interim meeting, scheduled for Dec. 2-3, at a commercial facility rather than the IPHC offices, in part to help with the ongoing effort to make the process more open and transparent.

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