IPHC puts off steep halibut cuts, 2013 catch reduced 7.5%

Photo/Klas Stolpe/AP File

VICTORIA, B.C. — Pacific coast halibut fishermen will see about a 7.5 percent reduction in catch this year, less than many were expecting.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission set the 2013 catch limit from Northern California to the Bering Sea at 31.02 million pounds on Jan. 25. Alaska’s portion of the catch is about 23 million pounds, down from about 25 million pounds in 2012.

The IPHC is a six-member body created to manage Pacific halibut by a 1923 treaty between the U.S. and Canada with each having equal representation.

The coastwide catch is down from 33.54 million pounds in 2012, but greater than the 22.55 million pound “blue-line” harvest considered likely going into the meeting. The blue-line number, presented at the interim meeting in November, would have matched past harvest policy with the current stock assessment, for a more than 30 percent reduction compared to 2012.

The catch limit for each area is as follows:

• 2A (Northern California-Washington): 990,000 pounds

• 2B (Canada): 7.04 million pounds

• 2C (Southeast Alaska): 2.97 million pounds

• 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 11.03 million pounds

• 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 4.29 million pounds

• 4A (Alaska Peninsuala): 1.33 million pounds

• 4B (Aleutian Islands): 1.45 million pounds

• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.93 million pounds

Each limit passed with a 5-1 vote. American Commissioner Ralph Hoard, formerly of Icicle Seafoods, was the sole no vote in each instance. Hoard and fellow American Commissioner Phillip Lestenkof, president of Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association from St. Paul, were both participating via teleconference, as they could not make it to the meeting.

The stock assessment presented at the meeting showed that the model had been over-predicting the number of halibut for the last few years, resulting in higher catch limits than called for in the harvest policy. Although the overestimation is now gone, and the stock appears to be leveling out, IPHC Chief Assessment Scientist Ian Stewart said the amount of exploitable biomass could decrease again as recent poor recruitments show up in exploitable component of the stock in coming years.

Because of the model’s prediction of future stock size, and the fact that cuts didn’t reduce that harvest all the way to the  level needed to stabilize the stock, future cuts are likely.

“I do think that the new stock assessment that we have depicts the stock as clearly and correctly as any that we’ve had,” said American Commissioner Jim Balsiger on the final day of the meeting. Balsiger is the government designee on the IPHC as the Alaska Region Administrator for National Marine Fisheries Service.

“It doesn’t point to all good things for the halibut resource in the near future,” Balsiger said. “We made a small step toward a conservation direction this year… But I don’t think we’ll be able to retain those small steps in the future.”

The IPHC also approved proposed charter regulations for Alaska that are the same as last year. That means a one fish bag limit and reverse slot limit in Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, and a two fish of any size bag limit in Area 3A, or the central Gulf of Alaska, will remain in place. The reverse slot limit in Southeast requires halibut between 45 inches and 68 inches to be carefully returned to the water.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council had recommended continuation of those management measures at its December meeting.

The charter catch is not part of the area limits for Alaska. That, and bycatch, are considered “other removals,” and factored out of the harvest before the commercial catch limit is determined.

The catch limits adopted by the IPHC match the Conference Board’s suggestions more than any other single set of recommendations. The board, or CB, is an advisory body to the commission formed primarily of harvesters.

The commission also heard recommendations from the Processors Advisory Group, or PAG, which were similar overall, but would have resulted in smaller catch in Areas 2A, 2B, 3A and 3B, and a larger one in 2C.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken, who served as the CB co-chair, said she thought the body’s proposed catch limits got more consideration than in some years past.

“It was a wise decision to stair step in these changes,” she said.

Aleut Enterprise Corp. Spokesman Clem Tillion agreed. He also served on the CB, and said the commission’s decision reflected a wariness to make the full cut without seeing how the model pans out in the future.

“I’m not willing to fall on my sword counting on it being correct,” Tillion said. “If it (the model) is correct, we may be facing more cuts.”

Tillion and Behnken were just two of more than 100 members of the public — mostly those involved in the halibut fishery in some way — who attended the five-day meeting.

The commissioners voting in favor acknowledged that cuts were necessary for conservation, but said they wanted to mitigate socioeconomic impacts for fishermen by not implementing them all at once.

Hoard said while he appreciated socioeconomic concerns for the fishermen, he had to vote for the fish – and for the fishermen’s long-term future. Recruitment, biomass and catch per unit effort all continued on a downward trend, he said.

“While the harvest rate is starting to come down, it is still above our harvest policy,” he said. “There are many questions remaining about bycatch and migration, so while I am extremely sympathetic about the impact on fishermen…I am equally concerned about their future in this fishery.”

Canadian Commissioner Michael Pearson noted that the halibut treaty tells the commissioners to create the optimal harvest opportunities for the fishery: “I think we all think about the fish, whether we’re commissioners or commission staff or fishermen or processors, interested bystanders … I think it is that consideration, that primary consideration, that motivates all the work that we do. But when we think about the fish, we think about two primary issues, which is what is the biology, as I said, and what are the socioeconomic issues? And in both contexts…how do we make decisions in the face of uncertainty?”

For Area 3A the limit is about an 888,000 pound drop from 2012, but about 1.79 million pounds more than the blue line.

For Area 3B, or the western Gulf, the limit is a 780,000 pound decrease from 2012, but about 1.56 million pounds more than the blue line.

For Area 2C, the 2013 limit is actually greater than 2012. It’s close to the blue-line number, but lower than the Conference Board recommendation. That is the result of improved survey results for the area last summer, and significant cuts in recent years.

Behnken said that fishermen felt it was somewhat unfair, for those same reasons. The area has already seen significant cuts, and the stock is doing better. But while other areas aren’t feeling the full burden of conservation, Southeast already has.

“So there’s some frustration just for 2C that a little bit different standard was applied than for other areas,” she said after the meeting.

Part of that frustration comes from the Area 2B, or British Columbia, limit, which was significantly above the blue line. The Canadian delegation to the IPHC has typically been successful negotiating increased catch for B.C., often by pointing to halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska.

Area 4 fishermen, who operate in the Bering Sea and Aleutian and Pribilof islands received a cut of about 1.19 million pounds. A significant Western Alaska and Bering Sea delegation showed up at the meeting to talk about the necessity of halibut for their economy.

Tillion said the cuts would hurt fishermen in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, but could have been worse.

“I think we came out as well as can be expected,” he said.

The 2013 halibut season will run from March 23 to Nov. 7, except for Area 2A where the fishery is open for specific dates only. That is a shorter season than what the CB asked for, but a longer one than the PAG suggested.

In its recommendations to the commission, the PAG said that processors have frozen halibut left from 2012, and wanted to try and sell some of that inventory before the season opens.

The staff recommended the Nov. 7 end date, which is meant to give them enough time to use the 2013 information in the stock assessment in time for the interim meeting, which was scheduled for December 2013.

The limits were set in the final public session of the IPHC’s 2013 annual meeting, held in Victoria, British Columbia. This was the first annual meeting with more sessions open to the public, an effort that developed out of a previous review of the commission. Stakeholders called that move a positive one, and the commission talked about providing webinars of the public sessions again next year.

The commission also discussed bycatch, oversight bodies for the commission’s scientific work and halibut management strategies, and other regulatory proposals.

Balsiger was elected chair for 2013-14. Pearson, the current chair, will be the vice-chair.

The commission’s interim meeting was scheduled for Dec. 3-4 in Seattle, with another webinar similar to the one provided this year. The 2014 annual meeting will be held in the Seattle-Bellevue area Jan. 17-21.

Balsiger may have two new commissioner colleagues for those meetings. The National Marine Fisheries Service announced earlier this month that it was re-opening the nomination process for American commissioners. Nominations are due Feb. 15. A list will be published on Feb. 19, and public comment taken at that time.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

02/04/2013 - 12:04pm