FISH FACTOR: Halibut stock shows signs of stability after decade of cuts
Despite some encouraging signs that Pacific halibut stocks are stabilizing after being on a downward spiral for nearly two decades, catches could decrease slightly in most regions again next year. That’s IF fishery managers accept the catch recommendations by halibut scientists, which they don’t always do.
At the International Pacific Halibut Commission interim meeting Dec. 1-2 in Seattle, the total 2016 catch, meaning for the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska, was recommended at 26.56 million pounds, down from 29.22 million pounds this year.
For Alaska, which always gets the lion’s share of the annual halibut harvest, the total take would be 20.32 million pounds, a decrease of less than 1 million pounds. Halibut catches for all but two Alaska regions would drop slightly, with Area 3B, the Western Gulf, and area 4CDE in the Bering Sea seeing slight increases.
Here are the 2016 recommended catch limits for the six Alaska regions where halibut is harvested, with comparisons to the 2015 catches in parentheses:
• Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 4.63 million pounds (4.65M)
• Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 9.37 million pounds (10.1M)
• Area 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.67 million pounds, (2.65M)
• Area 4A (Alaska Peninsula): 1.39 million pounds (1.3M)
• Area 4B (Aleutian Islands): 910,000 pounds (1.14M)
• Area 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.44 million pounds (1.29M)
There are several encouraging signs for the Pacific halibut stocks, according to IPHC staff biologist Ian Stewart.
“Both the data and the models indicate the stock is relatively stable, and we are seeing some positive trends in some of the catch rate information,” Stewart said in his presentation. “Generally, what we have seen is the yields we have been taking out of the stock over the past five years appear to be pretty consistent with the amount of production available from the stock. We are getting a flat trend, so what we are taking out must not be too far in excess of what is available to be taken out and still maintain roughly the same biomass level.”
Other good news showed that female halibut appear to be shifting towards higher weights, after decades of declines. A 16-year-old fish today averages 20 pounds, compared to 50 pounds in 1975, but the weights seem to be slowly moving towards more normal “weight at age” sizes.
Also, halibut bycatch by Bering Sea trawlers and freezer longliners dropped this year by more than 1 million pounds, but is still pushing 8 million pounds in the region that abuts the Pribilof Islands.
Final decisions on halibut catches, season start/end dates, and regulation changes will be made by the IPCH at its annual meeting set for Jan. 25-29 in Juneau.
Five regulation changes are proposed for consideration at the January meeting. The Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association is requesting that the halibut size limit be reduced from 32 inches to 30 inches. Based on reports from the 2013 fishery observer program in the Gulf of Alaska, FVOA stated that, “the directed halibut fleet is releasing 8.7 million pounds of undersized halibut (less than 32 inches). New reports suggest that with a two-inch reduction in size limit, the fleet could reduce handling by 58 percent, and reduce wastage from 1.35 million pounds to 0.58 million pounds.”
Another proposal by KC Dochtermann, a Kodiak fisherman, recommends a maximum size limit of 60 inches for all halibut caught by commercial and sport users.
“An established maximum size limit would serve the objective of protecting large halibut that are the spawning biomass. Providing protective status for this class of fish would hopefully help the total biomass recover at a faster pace,” Dochtermann wrote, adding that the change should be implemented for a five to ten year test period to monitor its effectiveness.
In other halibut news, Jeff Kauffman, a commercial fisherman from Wasilla was chosen for one of six Halibut Commission seats (split between Americans and Canadians). Kauffman, whose selection drew positive responses from the industry, replaces Don Lane of Homer who will remain as an alternate. (Editor’s note: Kauffman is also the CEO of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the Community Development Quota group for the island of St. Paul.)
Aging of the fleet
Alaskans often talk about the ‘”aging of the fleet” in terms of resident fishermen growing older (the average age is 47), but the adage also applies to Alaska’s boats.
According to a state Dept. of Commerce report aimed at identifying what services are needed by the fleet that could be done in-state instead of Outside, roughly 9,400 boats over 28 feet in length makeup Alaska’s maritime fleet. Of those, 69 percent are in the fishing and processing sector, 15 percent are recreational boats; freight carriers, sightseeing and oil and gas vessels make up the rest.
Over 90 percent of the Alaska fishing fleet is less than 100 feet long; 74 percent are under 50 feet. The bulk of the boats were built between 1970 and 1989; nearly 1,000 are over 50 years old.
The older boats soon will be required to comply with new safety requirements as part of the 2010 U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act.
“The Alternate Compliance Safety Program is aimed at vessels that are 25 years old by 2020 and greater than 50 feet in length, and operating beyond three nautical miles. So this is a new program,” said Troy Rentz, Alternate Safety Compliance Coordinator for the USCG 13th District.
“The requirements won’t become mandatory until Jan. 1 of 2020 for most vessels. However the Coast Guard needs to proscribe the program by Jan. 1 of 2017,” he added.
Coming up faster: By Feb. 16, 2016 a new law will require that survival crafts must keep all parts of the body out of the water, meaning floats and other buoyant apparatus will no longer be legal. The intent is to prevent hypothermia and effects of cold water that lead to drowning, Rentz said, adding that “there may be some exceptions for unique operating environments.”
Gunnar Knapp, one of the most recognized names in Alaska’s salmon industry, is retiring from the University of Alaska at the end of the academic year next June. Along with his work as a fisheries economist, Knapp is director of the University’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, or ISER.
In a letter to colleagues, Knapp said: “I have worked at ISER for 35 years—my entire career. I feel immensely lucky at the opportunities I have had to work with so many talented and dedicated colleagues, to study so many fascinating and important issues, and to spend the final three years of my career as Director. I can’t imagine a more interesting and rewarding career than studying and teaching about Alaska’s resources, economy and society.”
His retirement is a long-planned decision, he said, which will give him more time to focus on other projects and interests. He will continue research work at ISER on a part time basis, focusing on Alaska’s fiscal challenges, and his decades-long research on Alaska’s salmon industry and markets. That includes finishing his book titled “The Economics of Fish” and delving into other writing and consulting projects.
“Most importantly, I need to spend more time with my family,” Knapp said. “Before I get too much older and slower, I want to do a lot more skiing, biking, hiking and enjoying the beauty of Alaska which so entranced me when I first came here. And I want to play a lot more music.”