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Alaska's sport halibut catch drops once again

Craig Medred

Finally, the results are in for 2010, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says halibut anglers -- both guided and unguided -- under-harvested once again.

They were projected to catch slightly more than 7.6 million pounds of halibut statewide in 2010, but actually caught slightly less than 6.3 million pounds, according to Fish and Game, which put the actual harvest 17 percent below the expected.

The biggest drops came in harvests by unguided anglers. They were projected to catch about 2.1 million pounds of halibut in the north Gulf of Alaska area 3A -- primarily around Homer, Seward and Valdez -- but caught only 1.6 million pounds, about 31 percent less. Results in Southeast, area 2C, were similar. Unguided anglers projected to catch 2.1 million pounds in area 2C caught only about 900,000 pounds.

Charter angler catches in both areas were about 10 percent behind projections with the 2C catch at 1.1 million pounds and the 3A catch at 2.7 million pounds. The commercial catch off Alaska in 2010 was about 40 million pounds. And it is calculated another 10.5 million pounds of halibut -- more than twice the charter sport catch for the year -- were caught in commercial fisheries and dumped back into the ocean dead.

The state's analysis of the 2010 sport catch comes at a time of chaos in the halibut fisheries. The Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this year eliminated about 30 percent of the working Alaska charter halibut fleet with a limited-entry scheme. Before the consequences of that restriction were even known, NOAA bowed to the requests the commercial-fisheries run North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) and proposed a "catch share plan'' to force halibut charter business to share the pain of declining halibut numbers.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), a treaty organization that oversees management of Pacific Ocean halibut for the U.S. and Canadian governments, says the biomass  in the ocean has been declining because the fish don't grow nearly as fast as they once did. "For the past 15 years or so,'' the commission says, "halibut growth rates have been depressed to levels that haven't been seen since the 1920s....Sometime aorund 1980, growth rates started to drop, and now Alaska halibut of a a given age and sex are about the same size as they were in the 1920s. For example, in the northern Gulf of Alaska, an 11-year-old female halibut weighed about 20 pounds in the 1920s, nearly 50 pounds in the 1970s, and now again about 20 pounds.''

Because of the declining size of the fish, the commission has ordered catch cutbacks to protect vital spawners. Female halibut don't usually start spawning until they are 10 or 12 years old. Why the fish are growing so slowly remains a mystery, although the commission says the issue "may be tied to increased abundance of other species, such as arrowtooth flounder, and availability of food supply.''

Arrowtooth flounder -- large, toothy flatfish that look similar to halibut -- now constitute the largest biomass of fish in the Gulf of Alaska, the prime nursery area for Pacific halibut. Arrowtooth are all but inedible to humans. Their flesh breaks down to mush when cooked. Because of the limited marketability of arrowtooth, commercial fisheries in the Gulf have focused on other fishes like halibut and Pacific ocean perch. These fish, and even Alaska salmon, all compete for the same food. Some fisheries biologists believe that commercial harvests have come to benefit arrowtooth, albeit indirectly, helping boost the flounder population.

How that problem might be fixed is unknown. Arrowtooth are not easily targeted. They usually mix with halibut, and the big trawlers of the Gulf -- the boats that engage in what has been called industrial fishing -- are already catching a lot of small halibut nobody wants caught. Those fish are called "by-catch,'' and the trawlers are banned from keeping them. They are required to dump bycatch back in the ocean, but much of what they dump back is dead. And sometimes they dump a lot.

Halibut by-catch, the growth of arrowtooth flounder stocks and, for that matter, the growth problems with halibut themselves played out largely unnoticed off the Alaska coast until the North Pacific Council told NOAA to limit Alaska halibut charter operators who help anglers catch a small share -- under 8 percent in 2010 -- of the entire halibut harvest. The halibut charter operators, a lot of whom run mom-and-pop businesses, had no power within the federal bureaucracy, so they fought back in the only way they could. They went public with accusations the government was trying to force them out of business.

There was enough truth to the accusation that NOAA decided it might be a good idea if someone at least did an economic study of the impact of proposed halibut restrictions. The agency then sent the so-called catch share plan back to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Service for further study. Now comes the state report indicating that sport halibut harvests, which peaked in 2007, continue to fall.

The 2007 charter catch in Area 3A -- the north Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet -- was 4 million pounds. Area 3A is where the charters from Homer, Seward, Kodiak, Ninilchik, Valdez, and other Alaska tourist destinations near Anchorage fish. The 2007 catch of by charter anglers marked the first time they had significantly topped the 3.65 million ton "guideline harvest level" the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council  imposed in 2003. Guided anglers were back under the cap the next year with a catch of less than 3.4 million pounds, and way under it by 2009 with a catch of slightly more than 2.7 pounds. The 2010 catch was lower still.

What happened this summer, with a lot of charters out of business by federal order, won't be known until next year. But the trend lines in the state study indicate a continuing drop.

What the data means to the halibut charter debate is equally unclear. The North Pacific Council is back to the drawing board. At the same time, the International Pacific Halibut Commission warnd that if the U.S. government is going to crack down on sport harvests it needs to deal with the both guided and unguided angler harvest, and NOAA is cautioning that any plan for the charter halibut fishery needs to be devised so that it won't wreak economic havoc.

There are indications in the data that the decline in the halibut charter catch began to level off in 2010, perhaps because tourism seemed to rebound after years of decline due to a sinking national economy.

Those same charter operations says business was generally stable this year, although no one is reporting any major uptick. Rising fuel costs have kept the charter costs high, and the one thing charter operators seem to agree on is this: Higher costs mean fewer fishermen.

This was the reason most said they feared NOAA's catch-share-plan, which was expected to impose a one-fish limit next year. Charter operators said they couldn't imagine many people paying $200 or more to catch one halibut, especially when the size of the average fish caught has been steadily going down.

The average charter caught halibut weighed 22.3 pounds in 1997 and was down to only 20.7 in 2003. The average fish size is now down to 15.2 pounds. But that's a whopper compared to what's being caught in the non-guided fishery. Average size there is now under 13 pounds.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.