Halibut commission raises most Alaska harvest limits for 2022

  • Pacific halibut regulatory areas (International Pacific Halibut Commission)

An uptick in halibut stocks along much of the Pacific coast means increases in total catch limits in every region of Alaska this year.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission decided in its annual meeting last week to increase catch limits in every management region except for 2A — which covers the California, Oregon, and Washington coast — with an overall coastwide increase of nearly 6%. The total removal limit is set at 41.2 million pounds, with 33.7 million of those going to United States fishermen.

The increase comes after IPHC researchers informed the commission that halibut stocks were showing signs of rebounding from lows in the last five years, in part due to a large age class from 2012 becoming mature. The long-term trends of decline seemed to end in 2013, when the stocks began to climb again.

The largest increase came for Area 3B, which covers the western Gulf of Alaska — from 3.1 million to 3.9 million pounds, or an approximately 25% increase. Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, saw the smallest increase, climbing 1.9%, from 5.8 million to 5.9 million pounds.

Those numbers are for total removals; the totals are split between the recreational sector and commercial. Southeast Alaska was the only region that saw its commercial limits decline, but only slightly — by less than 1% — from 3.53 million pounds to 3.51 million pounds. The differential between the increase overall but the decline in commercial removals is a matter of math: other removals come off the top before commercial allocations are set, such as unguided and subsistence removals.

Area 2C stakeholders had been projecting a potential cut to the limit for the area because the actual survey information found a 12 percent decline in the halibut populations in Southeast. The region has seen cuts over the last several years, leading to tighter limits on its commercial fishing sector and its charter sector, which is a major part of Southeast’s tourism industry.

Area 2C exceeded its mortality limits in 2021 by 8 percent, the only area last year to do so, according to IPHC documents. Within 2C, the charter sector, unguided recreational sector, and commercial discard mortality limits were all exceeded. By comparison, area 3A — which covers the central Gulf of Alaska and the popular charter sport fisheries out of Homer and Seward — also exceeded its limits in those same areas, but less harvest in other areas put Area 3A at 99 percent of its limit overall

Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, says part of what’s happening in Southeast is that Canadian fishermen are taking about 5% more of the harvest than what the survey finds in area 2B, which covers the British Columbia coast. To make up for it and reduce some of the economic impact to Southeast fishermen, the commissioners moved some of the allocation for areas 3B and 4B to 2C, she said.

The current catch sharing agreement between the U.S. and Canada allocates about 18 percent of the coast-wide harvest of Pacific halibut to Canadian fishermen. Survey data shows that the vast majority of halibut spawn in Alaskan coastal waters. Behnken says this agreement is again disproportionate in favor of Canada.

“We are all looking forward to a more equitable sharing of the resource starting in 2023, Behnken said. “87% of the halibut resource is found off our coast by the halibut survey, but Canada takes 18% of the available harvest. That is an unsustainable ‘sharing’ of resources between the two countries that has to change.”

The U.S. negotiates with Canada every year through the IPHC on how to share the Pacific halibut stocks on the coasts of both countries, but once the IPHC sets the catch limits, it’s up to the national fisheries managers — the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the U.S. — to manage the fishery. The dates for the 2022 fishery are currently set from March 6–December 7.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

02/09/2022 - 8:46am