Committed to halibut plan, council gives relief to Southeast

Photos by Michael Dineen, for the Journal and the Associated Press

With potentially drastic harvest cuts on the horizon in 2013, the battle over the declining halibut resource continued at the latest meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

 Over the better part of two days at the Anchorage Hilton Dec. 11 and 12, the council once again revisited the contentious issue of halibut management between commercial and charter sectors that remains unresolved more than 18 years after the first stakeholder workgroup was formed.

The results were a mixed bag for charter and commercial halibut users, with everyone getting something from the council decisions.

Commercial halibut fishermen who have absorbed quota cuts ranging from more than 50 percent in the central Gulf of Alaska to nearly 80 percent in Southeast were glad that the council reaffirmed its commitment to implementing the halibut catch sharing plan, or CSP, that has drawn so much controversy since the proposed rule was published July 22.

While acknowledging the issues that delayed implementation in 2012, the council intent is to address the matter at its April meeting to start the CSP in 2013.

Southcentral charter anglers are taking a cut in their guideline harvest level, or GHL, from 3.65 million pounds to 3.1 million pounds in 2012, but the projected charter harvest is about 10 percent less than their quota and anglers will still have a two fish of any size daily bag limit. Skipper and crew retention also will still be allowed.

There was also some relief for Southeast charter operators, who had a maximum size limit of 37 inches put in place by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in 2011 to hold the sector within its allocation after a cumulative overage of 3.7 million pounds between 2004 and 2010.

The IPHC put the maximum limit in place because the halibut CSP was not and a one fish daily limit had not succeeded in holding the charter sector within its allocation. During 2011 under the size limit, the Southeast charter sector was held to about 390,000 pounds, far less than its allocation of 788,000 pounds.

The IPHC is an international body established by a 1923 treaty and made up of three members each from the U.S. and Canada who determine harvest strategy and quota levels. It holds an interim meeting each fall to present survey data and preliminary catch limit recommendations for regulatory areas stretching from the northern California coast to the Bering Sea.

It will adopt 2012 catch limits at its annual meeting in Anchorage Jan. 24 to Jan. 27.

Southeast is one of only two areas to receive an uptick in harvest levels for 2012 as recommended by the IPHC staff Nov. 30, and the charter allocation is stepping up from 788,000 pounds to 931,000 pounds. The commercial quota has a recommended level of 2.64 million pounds in 2012 compared to 2.33 million pounds in 2011.

The council recommended a reverse slot limit for Southeast in 2012, with fish up to 45 inches in length and fish longer than 68 inches able to be retained. Halibut between 45 inches and 68 inches may not be retained.

While the lower end of the slot limit eases the 37-inch restriction that resulted in an average charter fish of 9.4 pounds and 30.3 inches in 2011, the key component for operators in Southeast was being able to once again offer clients a trophy fish opportunity.

“When you come in 50 percent below GHL, that’s clearly overmanaging,” said Heath Hilyard, executive director of Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. “I can tell you from talking to member operators, there’s at least some encouragement or hope for recovery. I appreciate the management measure. It shows more flexibility, and when you look at the charter model in Southeast, it’s responsive to what we’ve continued to say — that opportunity for trophy fish is a critical part that sells the business. The reality is there won’t be many of those fish over 68 inches to catch. But having the opportunity is a vast improvement.”

The council thought it had settled the matter of halibut allocations in October 2008 when it passed the halibut CSP, by a 10-1 vote. The council was forced to take the matter up again when National Marine Fisheries Service told members Sept. 28 in Dutch Harbor that issues raised during the public comment period required further input from the council and the agency could not publish the final rule in time to take effect in 2012.

“We appreciate that the council re-committed to the catch sharing plan,” said Linda Behnken, director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “We appreciate they are prioritizing staff time from all the agencies to address the issues that need additional analysis or review by the council. That piece is done.”

Sharing pain

The halibut CSP would allocate the total commercial and charter harvest as a percentage, with each sector rising and falling in tandem with abundance and default management measures for the charter sector that grow more constraining as quotas decline.

Splitting the harvest as a percentage annually would replace the current guideline harvest level for charter allocation.

The charter percentages under the CSP range from 14 percent to 17 percent by area and abundance level, and are roughly equivalent and in some instances greater than the percentages used in 2003 to set the charter GHL.

The CSP also included a provision for charter operators to lease pounds from the commercial fishermen who receive individual fishing quota, or IFQ. The guided angler fish, or GAF, would be converted from the amount of pounds leased into a distinct number of fish based on a formula using average weight of charter-caught fish.

Unlike a percentage split, the GHL steps down based on abundance triggers. In 2011, the charter allocation in the central Gulf under the CSP would have been about 1.1 million pounds less than the current GHL of 3.65 million pounds, and charter anglers would have been on a one fish daily bag limit rather than two.

The smaller allocation under CSP, and the potential for a cut in bag limit based on the current low levels of halibut larger than 32 inches, caused an outcry in the charter sector after the proposed rule was published and more than 4,000 comments were received by NMFS.

Behnken noted that possibility for a one-fish limit in the central Gulf, and suggested the council modify the default management measures in the CSP to allow for two fish with a potential for a size restriction on one of the fish at the current levels of abundance.

Under Behnken’s suggestion, the only time the central Gulf anglers would be on a one-fish limit would be when the combined charter and commercial quota is less than 10 million pounds. The combined catch limit recommendation for charter and commercial in 2012 in the central Gulf is about 15 million pounds.

Behnken said that when the council devised the plan in 2008, the central Gulf charter fleet had been over its allocation by about 400,000 pounds combined from 2004 to 2007 and the trajectory looked like a one fish limit would be needed to keep the sector under 3 million pounds if abundance declined.

In 2011, with a two fish of any size bag limit, the central Gulf charter fleet took about 2.8 million pounds of halibut.

More cuts coming?

A year from now, the council discussion could look far different if the IPHC moves forward with an alternative harvest strategy to address retrospective errors in estimates of exploitable biomass.

What was variously referred by members of the public to as the “nightmare” or “Armageddon” scenario is a harvest strategy that would drastically reduce quota to account for errors in biomass estimates.

It is a far cry from the projections from IPHC the council considered in 2008 when it passed the CSP. The IPHC forecasted an upward trend in the stock that should have provided enough fish for all sectors based on very strong age classes from 1997 to 1999 that were similar to the 1987 and 1988 classes that had sustained the harvest through the mid-2000s.

Those late-1990s classes haven’t materialized as halibut growth rates have slowed to levels not seen since the 1920s. Coastwide, the number of halibut and total pounds are at near-record levels, but the amount larger than the legal size of 32 inches continues to decline.

The alternative strategy presented by the IPHC Nov. 30 would limit the central and western Gulf of Alaska to just 7.8 million pounds if applied in 2012 compared to the recommended catch level of 16.9 million pounds.

In Southeast, the harvest would be restricted to just 1 million pounds and the Bering Sea would be cut to 2.2 million pounds from the 2012 recommended catch of 5.9 million pounds.

The Southcentral charter sector would have an allocation of 2 million pounds, far less than the 3.1 million pounds for 2012, under the alternative harvest strategy. That is the lowest possible step down in the central Gulf GHL.

Under the alternative strategy in Southeast, the charter allocation would be 788,000 pounds under GHL management and represent about 42.5 percent of the combined commercial/charter allocation.

Next steps

Depending on how the analysis shakes out in April, whether the CSP could be in place for 2013 will hinge on any modifications suggested by the council being logical outgrowths of the proposed rule.

Under the Administrative Procedures Act, or APA, changes to the final rule must be “logical outgrowths” of the proposed rule to satisfy requirements that the public was fully informed on issues when making comments to NMFS.

For instance, the council may be able to tweak the management matrix for bag or size limits at low levels of abundance, but it may not be able to add a measure such as an annual bag limit or reverse slot limit that were not included in the proposed rule.

Charter operators urged the council to drop the provisions for leasing pounds from commercial quota holders as unworkable, but the council motion passed Dec. 12 affirms that part of the rule. Eliminating the GAF provision would most likely not be a logical outgrowth of the proposed rule, and the council could not remove it without triggering APA requirements.

If the council is able to satisfactorily address the NMFS issues at the April meeting, the council input would be incorporated into the publication of the final rule to allow the CSP to take effect in 2013. If the council cannot provide the information NMFS needs to respond to public comment in the final rule, the CSP would likely not be in place in 2013.

12/15/2011 - 3:39pm