US, Canada agree on 2019 halibut harvest limits
American and Canadian halibut fishermen finally have an approved set of catch limits for the 2019 season.
With the discord of its last annual meeting hanging in the air, the International Pacific Halibut Commission agreed on a set of total allowable catch limits for Pacific halibut in American and Canadian waters during its meeting from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1.
The overall catch limit of 38.61 million pounds is slightly up from the 2018 quota — about 1.4 million pounds more. That’s up from 29.9 million pounds in 2016 and from 31.4 million pounds in 2017. Total removals in 2018, including bycatch in nontarget fisheries, added up to about 38.7 million pounds.
By area, the total constant exploitation yield, or TCEY, limits are as follows in millions of pounds:
Area 2A (West Coast): 1.65
Area 2B (Canada): 6.83
Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 6.34
Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 13.5
Area 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.9
Area 4A (Aleutians/Bering Sea): 1.94
Area 4B (Aleutians/Bering Sea): 1.45
Area 4CDE (Bering Sea): 4
Last year, the commissioners from the U.S. and Canada could not come to an agreement about how to reduce halibut catches in Pacific waters and adjourned their meeting with no agreement. Each individual country handled its catch limits, as long as they were no higher than the 2017 limits the commissioners last agreed on. The commissioners noted multiple times that they needed to work together this year.
“America and Canada have been partnering for 100 years,” said commissioner Paul Ryall of Canada at the beginning of the meeting. “Though we did come to an impasse we hope we can work together for a productive future.”
The commissioners met about eight times between the last annual meeting and this year’s, Ryall said, with “good” discussions but no agreements in the interim.
The combined value to fishermen of the halibut and sablefish fisheries for 2018 was $161 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a 22 percent decrease from $208 million in 2017.
The average halibut price of $5.35 per pound in 2018 was down from $6.32 in 2017.
The increase in the overall catch limit follows a trend of the commission increasing the quotas, despite warnings from the IPHC researchers that the halibut surveys indicate that the stock is decreasing and reductions in the fishery levels are necessary for sustainability.
The researchers noted in their survey data that the stock is projected to decline from 2019-22 for all TCEYs set greater than 20 million pounds. The 2019 TCEY is nearly double that.
The 2018 setline survey data showed yet another decrease in the stock across its range: 7 percent down in the Gulf of Alaska and 15 percent down in Southeast. However, the commissioners have previously noted doubt about the survey data’s accuracy. The researchers also noted at the 2017 meeting that their conclusions were based on incomplete data and that they were working on a new model to account for current stock dynamics.
Former North Pacific Fishery Management Council Executive Director Chris Oliver, the administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service and a U.S. commissioner to the IPHC, thanked the Canadian delegation for its cooperation and said he has gained a deeper understanding of the halibut fishery after working through the year on the IPHC issues.
“Based on our inability to reach consensus last year and coming into this meeting based on some of the preliminary meetings we had, I was somewhat fearful, skeptical that we would be able to reach a conclusion in this meeting,” he said. “I was eager to do so, because I feel like if we came out of this meeting with an inability to reach consensus it would be extremely negative to the reputation of this international management body.”
He added that in its process of setting catch limits, NMFS reshuffled some of the halibut quota and moved it to Southeast from the other U.S. areas to avoid a significant drop that would have resulted from going directly with the apportionment model.
“We opted to move some of the fish from the other U.S. apportionment areas back into 2C to get it where it was last year,” he said. “(For consistency) we felt it was appropriate to move a little fish out of 3A, out of 4B, a small amount of 4C, in order to get area 2C to a level of 6.34 million pounds.”
Halibut bycatch, a perennial issue, took center stage at the meeting as well. The commission unanimously approved a recommendation to redefine TCEY to include the bycatch of halibut less than 26 inches long, or U26 bycatch. Nontarget commercial fisheries, notably the commercial trawlers, catch a significant number of halibut as bycatch each year, which managers and fishermen have been trying to figure out how to address.
Several people at the IPHC noted work currently under progress at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to manage Bering Sea halibut bycatch by abundance. Heather McCarty of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association urged the IPHC to get involved with the council’s efforts there.
“You now have an opportunity to participate in a very meaningful way in what some of us believe is the best way to manage halibut bycatch,” she said.
The commissioners rebalanced the allocation as well, with 17.7 percent of the total catch going to Canada and 82.3 percent going to the U.S. Canada’s allocation would be slightly up from 2018, when it was suggested at about 15 percent. The allocation between countries was a big hangup at the last meeting.
In a press release issued Feb. 4, Oliver said the 2019 quota still conserves stocks, though it is higher.
“While the overall quota for 2019 is a slight increase over 2018, the catch limits agreed to at the meeting reflect a sensible, conservative approach that will secure the future of this iconic and economically important species,” he said.
The commission agreed on a halibut season of March 15 to Nov. 14.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].