Halibut quota up 2.3 percent overall, dips for Central Gulf
The International Pacific Halibut Commission raised halibut quota for the second time in as many years, adding a glimmer of hope to a fishery troubled by stock declines and political squabbles.
Overall, the commission raised the Pacific halibut catch limits in all except one region: the Central Gulf of Alaska, also known as Area 3A. In particular, it gave a much-welcomed boost to the Central Bering Sea – from where the commission’s newest member hails and holds commercial halibut quota.
“We’re very excited about it in St. Paul,” said Simeon Swetzof, mayor of St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, a Central Bering Sea island whose economy depends in large part on small boat halibut fisheries. “We want to continue to be excited later.”
The commission, comprised of U.S. and Canadian commissioners, oversees the quota-setting process for U.S. and Canadian halibut fisheries in the Pacific from Northern California to the Bering Sea.
The commission divides the overall halibut fishery into specific areas and allocates quota to each area. In total, the commission set the overall halibut harvest for the 2016 season at 29.89 million pounds, a 2.3 percent increase from 2015.
This is also an increase from the catch limits recommended at the commission’s 2015 meeting, called the “blue line” limits. The 2016 limit exceeds the blue line by more than 3 million pounds.
The increase looks good for communities represented by Jeff Kauffman, CEO of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. Kauffman was recently appointed as one of the commission’s three U.S. commissioners, taking over for Don Lane of Homer.
The Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association is a Community Development Quota group for St. Paul, a Central Bering Sea island whose economy depends in large part on small boat halibut fisheries.
The Central Bering Sea, termed Area 4CDE by the commission, has been the one of the commission’s biggest focal points in 2014 and 2015. Halibut fishermen in the area have been faced with shrinking allocations, leading to several large-scale management decisions from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Officials including the Secretary of Commerce implored the commission to set quota at a bare minimum of 1.285 million pounds for the area, which it did in 2015. This year, the area’s quota rose.
The Community Development Quota program gives 10 percent of federal fishing quota to 65 Alaska villages within 50 miles of the coast.
Kauffman also sits on the Advisory Panel for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets halibut bycatch limits and management, as well as the split between sportfishing groups and commercial users.
Kauffman has been a vocal proponent for cutting halibut bycatch caps for Bering Sea groundfish trawlers in 2015, during which the North Pacific cut bycatch caps for the groundfish fleet by a 25 percent.
Swetzof said he recognizes that his area’s quota bump in part comes from a reduction in bycatch from Bering Sea groundfish trawlers, the majority of who are concentrated in the so-called Amendment 80 fleet based in Seattle.
“The Amendment 80 guys, they put halibut on the table for us,” said Swetzof. “I really appreciated Amendment 80 doing what they did last year, and this year. They left 900,000 pounds on the table.”
Each area either received an increase in quota or an equal amount to the 2015 season, except Area 3A, the Central Gulf of Alaska.
The Southcentral Alaska charter halibut fishery has been saddled with steadily tightening restrictions, which charter industry stakeholders make Alaskans lose interest in the fishery.
Guided halibut anglers in Area 3A can still keep two fish per day but can catch fewer per year. Anglers can only catch four per year instead of the five they were allowed in 2015, though the council kept the two-fish daily bag limit with a 28-inch size restriction on one fish. Weekly day closures, which the council first added last year, will be held on Wednesdays for Southcentral.
Andy Mezirow, captain of Crackerjack Charters in Seward and a member of the North Pacific council, said the Southcentral charter fleet isn’t surprised by the quota reductions for his area given the still-shaky biomass for Pacific halibut.
“It looks like the commissioners pretty much followed the science,” said Mezirow. “If there continues to be a downward trend, we’ll have to come up with some innovative solutions to keep it viable.”
Mezirow said charter captains have not yet seen a precipitous drop in business. Southcentral restrictions may have a negative impact on Alaska resident charter clients, but overall the fishery is maintained by an increase in Alaska tourism despite quota drops, he said. To Mezirow, this is a mixed blessing.
“To me, making up for a loss of access to residents with more tourism isn’t exactly healthy,” said Mezirow.
Each area’s 2016 harvest exceeds the blue line harvest limit.
Area 2A, Pacific Northwest coast: 1.14 million pounds, 200,000-pound increase from 2015.
Area 2B, British Columbia: 7.3 million pounds, a 240,000-pound increase from 2015.
Area 2C, Southeast Alaska: 4.95 million pounds, a 300,000-pound increase from 2015.
Area 3A, Central Gulf of Alaska: 9.6 million pounds, a 500,000-pound decrease from 2015.
Area 3B, Western Gulf of Alaska: 2.71 million pounds, a 60,000-pound increase from 2015.
Area 4A, Central Aleutian Islands: 1.39 million pounds, the same as 2015.
Area 4B, Western Aleutian Islands: 1.14 million pounds, the same as 2015.
Area 4CDE: Central Bering Sea: 1.66 million, a 375,000-pound increase from 2015.
Area 4C: 733,600 pounds, up from 559,000 in 2015.
Area 4D: 733,600 pounds, up from 559,000 in 2015.
Area 4E: 192,800 pounds, up from 92,000 pounds in 2015.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].