Halibut fishery poised to open as NMFS works on 2018 catch limits

  • With less than two weeks to go before the start of the halibut season, harvest quotas remained uncertain as of March 14 after the international body failed to reach agreement on the U.S. and Canadian totals at its annual meeting in January. The only number known for sure is that the harvests will be less than 2017. (Photo/File/AP)

Alaska’s halibut fishery is set to open this month, but the final quota was still not completely set as of March 14, even as fishermen began to receive permits in the mail.

Indications, however, are that the quota will decrease this year compared to last.

Under regulations published by the National Marine Fisheries Service this month, the fishery will open March 24 and run through Nov. 7. But the total catch limits remain unknown.

That’s because this year, for just the second time in the commission’s history that dates to its creation by a 1923 treaty, the International Pacific Halibut Commission could not come to an agreement about the 2018 catch limits at its annual meeting. That leaves it up to regulatory bodies in each country to determine the limits instead.

Halibut Coalition Executive Director Tom Gemmell said he expects the quota to decrease by about 15 percent overall compared to 2017, when Alaskan fishermen had their total statewide quota set at about 22.62 million pounds. In 2017, and for a few years prior, the quota had increased slightly after nearly a decade of annual cuts totaling more than 70 percent from mid-2000 highs.

The halibut commission is the six-member body (three each from the U.S. and Canada) charged with regulating the halibut fishery from Northern California to the Bering Sea under the international Pacific halibut treaty, including setting the catch limit each year. The IPHC meets each January and decides on the coastwide halibut catch limits, based on input from staff scientists. But this past January, at its annual meeting in Portland, the commission was not able to come to an agreement on the 2018 limits.

Gemmell said the lack of agreement was not entirely surprising.

“Last year, the commission was not unanimous about the quota,” he explained, which sort of foreshadowed future disagreements.

Until new catch limits are published, the 2017 limits remain in effect. But the IPHC did agree unanimously that those limits were too liberal, and that the resource needs more protection, said Kurt Iverson of the NMFS Alaska Region Sustainable Fisheries Division.

“The U.S. and Canada unanimously agreed that catch limits should be lower in 2018,” Iverson said.

The two countries couldn’t, however, agree on how much lower to set the coastwide limit, or how to split it up between regions.

Gemmell said there have been a few sticking points in the two countries negotiations over the past few years. One is that the Canadians have advocated for more quota for British Columbia fishermen than the stock assessment model appears to support. The other is the level of cuts for Area 3A, which encompasses much of the Central Gulf of Alaska. Canadians have favored larger cuts there than Americans, Gemmell said.

Without new IPHC limits for 2018, the 2017 limits remain in place. But under the terms of the halibut treaty, NMFS has the authority to set its own regulations as long as they are not in conflict with those set by the commission, an option NMFS is exercising this year to meet the commission’s recommendation of a reduction.

“Carrying the 2017 catch limits forward would not serve conservation purposes,” Iverson said, although those limits will remain in place until 2018 limits are published.

This month, the federal agency published season dates and some other regulatory changes for the coming fishing season. The interim final rule with new 2018 catch limits was expected to be published soon, Gemmell said in mid-March.

“The season opens March 24. There’s a really high probability that the rule is going to be out before then,” he said.

Iverson agreed.

“It is right now in the process. It is under review,” he said. “… We’re targeting before that first opening.”

Typically, once the IPHC makes its recommendations on the annual catch limits, NMFS is able to publish those through a “pretty fast track” process, Gemmell said. Without that fast-track, the regulatory process is much more difficult. But NMFS appeared to be working to quickly get the fishery going despite the challenging winter, Gemmell said.

“People are getting their permits in the mail starting today,” Gemmell said on March 13. “…It’s all kind of falling into place now.”

In setting the 2018 limits, NMFS had some help from the commission staff, which provided an update on the halibut stock status as part of its meeting this fall, and also from the American commissioners specifically, who made a recommendation for some specific 2018 catch limits that were lower than the 2017 limits.

The American commissioners suggested a catch limit of about 4.5 million pounds in Area 2C, which encompasses Southeast Alaska, and a limit of 9.5 million pounds in Area 3A. Those are both reductions from 2017, and include the combined charter-commercial catch.

This likely won’t be the only year of cuts. In addition to its commissioners, which are appointed by each nation, the IPHC has staff scientists responsible for assessing the status of the halibut stock and determining what it will likely be in the future. This past year, the assessments showed a weaker stock. Both the halibut survey out in the ocean, and the review of fishermen’s catch per unit effort, appeared to show that decline.

“There’s a couple year classes that aren’t showing up as strong as we’d like ‘em to be. So its probable that the quota is going to go down again (in 2019),” Gemmell said.

The commission also regulates other components of the halibut fishery, including the season dates. Those were set as usual, and the commission also approved some other minor regulatory changes. They did not approve the catch share allocations or charter halibut management measures as usual, Iverson noted.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommends the charter management measures to keep the charter fleet within its allocation, and the IPHC typically adopts those as recommended. That did not happen this year.

The IPHC is expected to meet in April to discuss its differences and how it might go forward in the future. Just who will represent the United States going forward is still unknown, however.

Currently, the U.S. commissioners are NMFS Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger of Juneau, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken of Sitka and Washington’s Bob Alverson, from the Fishing Vessel Owners Association. Behnken’s and Alverson’s terms expire this month. But have said they would like to continue serving on the commission, but NMFS also solicited other possible appointees in February.

According to the call for nominees, would-be commissioners are vetted by the Department of Commerce and Department of State and forwarded to the Office of the President for consideration for presidential appointments.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

03/14/2018 - 1:03pm