Halibut harvests cut for 10th straight season


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For the 10th straight year, halibut catches from Northern California to the Bering Sea are being reduced. Total coastwide catches have declined from more than 76 million pounds in 2004 to about 27 million pounds in 2014. While halibut are numerous, fewer are larger than the 32-inch size limit for commercial harvest.

Photo/File/AJOC

SEATTLE — Halibut fishermen will see another year of cuts under catch limits adopted Jan. 17 at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting.

Alaska’s portion of the 2014 catch is about 19.7 million pounds, out of a coastwide catch of 27.5 million pounds.

The coastwide catch is about 10 percent less than 2013, marking 10 consecutive years of cuts. The 2013 limit was about 31.02 million pounds coastwide, and 23 million pounds in Alaska.

The commission, or IPHC, met in Seattle Jan. 13-17 to set the catch limits from Northern California to the Bering Sea and discuss other issues in the Pacific halibut fishery.

The six-member body is comprised of three representatives from America and three from Canada, and regulates halibut under the Pacific Halibut Treaty signed in 1923.

By regulatory area, the 2014 catch limits are as follows:

• 2A (Northern California-Washington): 960,000 pounds down from 990,000 pounds in 2013

• 2B (Canada): 6.85 million pounds, down from 7.04 million pounds in 2013

• 2C (Southeast Alaska): 4.16 million pounds, up from 2.97 million pounds in 2013

• 3A (Southcentral Alaska): 9.43 million pounds, down from 11.03 million pounds in 2013

• 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): 1.14 million pounds, down from 1.45 million pounds in 2013

• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.285 million pounds, down from 1.93 million pounds in 2013

The limits all passed unanimously.

2014 will be the first year charter and commercial fishermen operate under a combined catch limit in Areas 2C and 3A, so the catch limits do not present as clear of a comparison for those areas.

The commercial catch for Area 3A is 7.317 million pounds. Guided recreational fishermen will be limited to 1.782 million pounds, including wastage, in that area.

For 2C, fishermen will see only a slightly increased catch compared to 2014, despite the 1.45 million pound catch limit increase. The commercial portion of the catch is 3.3 million pounds, while the charter catch will be 761,280 pounds.

Although the conference board, which is the advisory body that represents harvesters, had advocated for higher limits, some Alaska fishermen said they were happy to see the commission take a conservation-minded approach.

“While it’s economically painful in the short term, I’m glad to see that the commission took most of the recommended cuts,” said Homer fisherman Malcolm Milne, from the North Pacific Fisheries Association. “This will hopefully put us at the bottom and we can start rebuilding.”

The cuts are the result of declining exploitable halibut biomass, although the IPHC’s quantitative scientist, Ian Stewart, said it appeared that the stock was leveling out.

The cuts come at a time when halibut prices are low, and the overall value of the fishery has declined, which makes them particularly hard for fishermen.

Last year, halibut prices started low. The average ex-vessel price for the opening period of the season, which ended March 31, was $3.78 averaged across all Alaska landing ports. By the final period, which ended Nov. 30, the price averaged across all ports was $5.05. Those prices are based on the information NOAA Fisheries uses to calculate the cost recovery bills it sends to fishermen each year.

Those were down from 2012, when the March average for all areas was $6.29, and the final price in November for all areas was $5.66 per pound.

According to the same estimates, the dockside value of the 2013 fishery was $105 million, about $32 million less than the 2012 value.

Alaska fishermen also left some fish in the water last year, taking about 96 percent of the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, catch in 2013. IFQ holders are allowed to roll as much as 10 percent of their quota into the following year.

This year, the halibut season will run from March 8 to Nov. 7 for the commercial IFQ fisheries.

That’s shorter than the season the Conference Board recommended, but longer than the Processor Advisory Group had requested. The CB suggested March 8 to Nov. 15.

The PAG recommended the season run from March 22 to Oct. 31. Those dates would allow some sales of halibut already in the freezer before the season opened, and end with plenty of time to market halibut before American Thanksgiving.

The later start date was also meant to allow processors to go to the Boston Seafood Show before the season began, according to PAG Chair Tom McLaughlin.

The commission, however, selected the middle length, noting that it did want to get the fishery closed before the conflict with Thanksgiving marketing began.

Overall, the total 2014 limit is slightly higher than the blue line preliminary estimate released in December that couples the IPHC’s harvest policy with the current stock status.

Commissioners noted, however, that the final limit was within the range presented by IPHC staff in its decision table.

Much of the Alaska limit matched the blue line paired with apportionment policy, although Bering Sea fishermen saw a slight adjustment upward.

Coastal Villages Region Fund, or CVRF, and Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, or CBSFA, advocated for higher limits in the most northern halibut fisheries. CVRF is the Community Development Quota group for 20 villages in the Kuskokwim delta. CBSFA is the CDQ group for the village of St. Paul.

Those CDQ groups pointed to a regional dependence on halibut for their economy as a reason more quota was needed, and individual fishermen submitted comments and testified in person supporting that position.

The commission chose a smaller limit than was requested, but one that was higher than the blue line.

New American commissioner Bob Alverson of Seattle, who made the motion for the 4B catch limit, said it was a way to stair step in the cuts that would have resulted from implementing the blue line.

American Don Lane of Homer, the other new member of the commission, made the motion for the 4CDE catch limit, and echoed those comments. Lane said the limit reflected the need for a precautionary approach to protect the halibut, while also providing some fishing opportunity in the region.

CBSFA CEO Jeff Kauffman said his group was glad for the increase over the blue line.

“I think the solution is probably the fairest,” he said after the decision was made. “This halibut is really, really important to us.”

Fishermen in Area 2A and 2B also received upward adjustments.

In Area 2A, which includes northern California, Oregon and Washington, Alverson made the motion for the limit, and said the increase was partially reflective of a strong catch per unit effort in the area. In that area, there is strong accountability for the catch by the coastal states and treaty nations that manage fishing, and the trawl rationalization has reduced halibut catch as well, Alverson said.

For Area 2B, the limit was reflective of issues in the stock, but also the fact that British Columbia does not have the same level of bycatch as the Alaska fisheries. Canadian Commissioner Paul Ryall made the motion for that limit, noting that the situation in B.C. is similar to the Area 2A fisheries in terms of observer coverage and accountability.

Lane and Alverson were appointed to the commission in January, joining Jim Balsiger, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska as the American representation.

Lane and Balsiger had indicated before the decision was made that they supported the preliminary estimate, and trying to give the stock an opportunity to rebuild.

Although the coastwide catch is slightly higher than the estimate, it is lower than the 2013 catch.

Alverson said the cuts weren’t surprising, and are necessary for the stock.

“I knew going in that the resource is in trouble, and I knew that some tough decisions had to be made,” he said after the meeting ended Jan. 17.

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