Even after restrictions, charter halibut catch exceeds limits

The 2014 charter halibut catch exceeded the allocations in both Southeast and Southcentral despite projections last winter that the management measures would keep anglers within the limits for each area.

Total charter removals, which includes release mortality for certain fish, are estimated at 875,572 pounds of halibut in Southeast, or Area 2C, and 2.17 million pounds in Southcentral, or Area 3A.

The charter allocation for 2C was 761,000 pounds and 1.76 million pounds for 3A.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that guided anglers harvested about 67,942 halibut in Southeast Alaska this summer, and 181,947 halibut in Southcentral.

Those estimates are based on logbook data through July. ADFG’s Scott Meyer said during an October meeting with charter operators that the department has generally been successful at estimating the full summer’s catch based on the first half, although operators said that storms and other events may throw those estimates off this year.

This was the first year of management under the new halibut catch sharing plan. The International Pacific Halibut Commission set the overall halibut catch limit last January, which was split between the commercial and charter sectors based on a formula set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The council recommended management measures for the guided anglers; those were developed by a committee comprised primarily of charter sector representatives.

But the management measures didn’t result in the expected harvest.

In Southeast, Meyer said the number of fish harvested was about 17 percent higher than expected, but the fish were a little smaller, so the total overage was about 15 percent higher than the pre-season projection. The harvest was larger out of Sitka, Juneau and Glacier Bay, Meyer said, but held fairly steady in Petersburg and Ketchikan.

In Southcentral, Meyer said the opposite occurred. Fewer fish were landed, but they were larger than expected. Seward and Kodiak were the main ports were more fish than expected were harvested; elsewhere in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, the catch was lower than in the past.

That didn’t necessarily mean that the fish were actually larger this summer, however. Meyer said that in Southcentral, it looked like fewer people kept a second fish this year than in the past, meaning that the fish they kept, which didn’t have a size limit, were bigger on average than anticipated. That’s different than the fish available being generally larger, he said.

Homer’s Dan Donich said that at that port, it was “one of the worst years I’ve ever seen” in terms of big fish, although it wasn’t hard to find smaller ones. Donich said that he struggled to find 20- to 40-pounders on his trips, which were mostly halibut-salmon combos.

Meyer noted that other ports, like Seward, did appear to have more of the big fish.

Meyer said the logbooks also didn’t show an increase in released fish, despite reports that that occurred.

Seward’s Andy Mezirow suggested that guide behavior may have also impacted fishing behavior — as the season progressed, he increased his focus on getting clients on fish they’d want to keep right away, and discouraged them from tossing them back, he said.

At the meeting, operators also discussed the management measures they’d like to see considered for next year. Unless the IPHC increases the overall catch limit, the measures will likely need to limit their effort more than they did this year.

Southcentral operators maintained that they’d like to keep a two-fish bag limit, and asked ADFG to analyze a reverse slot limit, day of the week closures, annual limits and a maximum size, as well as various combinations of those, to try and get the region within its likely allocation.

Day of the week closures will be considered for June 15 to Aug. 15, when operators are often busy every day; shutting down fishing during the shoulder season would more likely just result in more activity on the other days.

For Southeast, where guided anglers have already been limited to one fish, the primary focus for analysis is the reverse slot limit with an annual limit and a maximum size limit with an annual limit.

Analysis of those options will be presented in December.

Every halibut counts

Charter operators also worked to reduce halibut mortality this summer through an initiative called Every Halibut Counts that started in 2013.

Mark Young, a Valdez charter operator and steering committee member, said Every Halibut Counts is an effort to get charter operators and their clients to practice safe release techniques and minimize halibut mortality.

“It’s just protection of the resource,” Young said.

About 20 vessels participated this summer, mostly from Southcentral, although Young said that Petersburg operator Stan Malcolm also worked to get folks in Southeast Alaska involved. Homer had some of the best participation in the program, in part because of Alaska Marine Conservation Council intern who was also a deckhand, and helped get vessels signed up, Young said.

Several factors play into overall halibut mortality, and the decisions an angler makes about whether to keep or release a fish are tied, in part, to the management measures, he said. The committee wants to make sure that when a fish is released, it has the best possible chance at surviving, Young said.

To that aim, Every Halibut Counts has a website and video, and is focused on spreading a set of best practices that include the use of circle hooks, quickly reeling the fish in and using a net to carefully return fish to the water.

Young said many of the suggestions are already considered best practices, but the campaign is a way to remind everyone.

For him, the discussion of which fish to keep is the most interesting part, Young said.

Young said that the management measures also impacted people’s fishing behavior this summer— some people wanted to catch and release until they got to their biggest possible second fish shorter than 29 inches.

This summer, his approach was to tell his clients that he was hoping that they would want to keep the first fish they caught.

“If I’m keeping a fish, there’s no concern about releasing it,” he said.

So far, Young said that clients were “very, very receptive” to the message.

“Along with many other things, they’re beginning to understand that its more than just going out there and catching fish,” he said.

Although the campaign originated in the charter sector, Young said he hopes the practices spread to recreational anglers, too.

The project started with a Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, and has been largely spearheaded by UAF Professor Terry Johnson and AMCC Executive Director Kelly Harrell, Young said.

He, and other charter operators, were recruited to the steering committee to help develop the best practices and spread the word. Just talking to operators in other ports has been an unexpected bonus to the endeavor, Young said.

“It’s been nice to have conversations that aren’t centered around allocation in the charter fleet,” he said.

Angler activity up overall

Halibut catches weren’t the only increase in angler activity this past summer.

Through September, anglers purchased a total of 592,251 fishing licenses in 2014, more than the previous two years, when 582,781 and 589,814 licenses were sold in 2013 and 2012, respectively.

That figure includes several types of fishing licenses, including both resident and nonresident, and shows a general increase in sport fishing activity.

11/18/2016 - 9:35am