Fish Bytes: A chat with IPHC biologist Gregg Williams


Welcome to the Fish Bytes blog on the new and improving Alaska Journal of Commerce website. As a fisheries reporter, the main advantage of working at a weekly publication is having the time to sit through days of regulatory meetings or spend hours reading through discussion papers and analyses that typically number in the hundreds of pages.

The big disadvantage — until now — was the inability to provide fresh daily content about a global industry in which Alaska plays a vital part.

A perfect example came yesterday morning on “press day.” We send our latest issue to the printer every Wednesday, which means copy is pretty much set by early morning if we’re not dealing with breaking news.

So with my latest story on the proposed halibut catch sharing plan already on the page when International Pacific Halibut Commission biologist Gregg Williams called around 8:30, I wasn’t able to update with his insights on the latest statements from charter operators opposed to the rule.

Before the launch of the new website, I would have had to wait more than a week to get a new story up. Now, I can share Williams’ thoughts with you today.

As I discuss in the story that will publish to the web Friday, Alaska Charter Association board member and longtime operator Richard Yamada argued to the Alaska House Special Committee on Fisheries at a Sept. 1 hearing that the IPHC has been allowing the commercial sector to overharvest halibut in Southeast.

In an argument that’s been gaining traction among the charter sector lobbying for changes in the rule, Yamada pointed to IPHC data that shows a harvest rate of greater than 50 percent for several recent years in Southeast.

The target harvest rate of the exploitable biomass for IPHC is 20 percent. The Southeast charter operators contend that while they are often blamed for going over their allocation (which they have for every year since 2004), it is actually the commercial sector that has been allowed to overharvest the stock while it is in a declining trend.

Williams said that comparing the target harvest rate to the actual harvest rate is “kind of an apples to oranges comparison” and that it was “a bit of a red herring” to point to high harvest rates as being evidence of IPHC allowing the commercial fleet to overharvest the stock.

Williams also talked about the change in 2011 to the “slow up, full down” approach versus the previous “slow up, fast down” policy, the talk of changing the legal commercial size to 30 inches (from 32) and what will happen at the interim IPHC meeting in November if the halibut CSP is not yet in place.




Williams said delays in data collection (such as the previous season unguided and subsistence estimates from Alaska Department of Fish and Game) and revisions to the stock assessment over time are contributing factors to the high harvest rate in Southeast:

“There is some lag in the data being reported. There’s also an issue of fish stock assessments in which the most recent year is frankly the most poorly estimated one because you don’t have as good a look at the younger age classes that you do as you do down the road when those age classes get to be larger components in the stock. 

“That’s why we have this sort of retrospective pattern in our assessment of what we estimate for say, this year is like 313 million pounds for coastwide biomass, five years from now what we estimate for 2011 will be a much lower number because we have a better look at the strength of those age classes coming in.

“We also have this target harvest rate and the subsequent look at what that rate is and how it gets calculated out tends to bump that value up quite a bit as well.

“It’s a bit of a red herring to look at those high exploitation rates as being commercial overharvest. It’s more appropriate to look at each year on a stand-alone basis.”

Williams also explained how the change to a “full down” policy from “fast down” contributed to an even greater reduction in commercial allocation for Southeast in 2011 (it was cut from 4.4 million pounds in 2010 to 2.33 million in 2011):

“The difference is from ‘slow up, fast down,’ in periods of declining biomass, the staff recommendation would be for 50 percent of the difference between last year’s catch limit and this year’s available yield. In other words, it wouldn’t go all the way down to what the assessment said the available yield is for the current year.

“What we changed this year was to go ‘full down,’ to actually take that available yield from the assessment as our recommendation. As we looked at this in hindsight, when you have a declining biomass as we do now, you end up chasing your tail all the way down. You never catch up.

“The other reason for only bringing it 50 percent down is, like anything you estimate, are the error bounds on those estimates. There is some error or variability around the estimate.”

Williams said about half the drop in quota for Southeast this year was because of the change to “full down” in policy:

“If we’d gone ‘fast down,’ we might have been up in the 3 (million pounds), something along that line.”

Williams said the previous “fast down” policy charter groups are pointing to as the IPHC allowing the commercial sector to overharvest the stock was not based on economics:



“The 50 percent is not necessarily from an economic argument, it’s more of a recommendation of the assessment process that we’re using. Guys are saying we’re trying to save the commercial industry, or that we’re giving them more fish when they don’t need it. I can see where they say that, but it’s not even part of the thinking.”

Williams said the IPHC will most likely come to its interim meeting in Anchorage Nov. 30-Dec. 1 with two options for management in 2012 because of uncertainty over whether the CSP will be in place:

“At the interim meeting, we’ll be discussing and making public the status of the stock after this year’s fishery, survey results. Usually we have our catch limit recommendations in that presentation also. People will be able to see what those look like. But with this catch sharing plan on the horizon, not knowing if that will be implemented next year or not, we’ll have to do a Plan A and Plan B. 

“In case it is, we’ll have a combined catch limit for charter and commercial. If not, it would be as we’ve done before with the straight commercial catch limit and GHL for the charter industry.”

At the Sept. 1 hearing, Yamada from ACA also raised the possibility of lowering the legal commercial sized halibut from 32 inches to 30 inches. The number of halibut in the Gulf of Alaska is healthy, but the commercially exploitable stock of 32 inches or longer is in a declining trend.

Williams said the idea has been discussed for the last few years, but that the IPHC is “uneasy” with it.

“The market is set up for 10 pounds and up (a 32-inch halibut net weight). If for whatever reason, guys don’t retain those small fish and throw them back, you have mortality for those small fish. What goes along with changing the size limit is you’ve expanded the exploitable biomass. You’re exploiting a larger portion of the stock. That technical increase in the stock, you increase the harvest rate proportionally.

“So you have a higher catch limit, but if the fishermen don’t target those small fish but instead shift to areas where they’re catching bigger fish, you’ve exacerbated the problem because now they’re putting even more effort on the large fish when they should be moving away from by virtue of having more pounds of small fish to retain.

“That could have serious ramifications. The fishermen’s behavior is the big unknown on that.” 

Andrew Jensen can be reached at