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Good and lousy news for Alaska halibut anglers

Craig Medred

Be ye a halibut angler -- Alaska-based or from afar -- there was good news coming out of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this holiday season tempered by a little coal-in-the-stocking courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Council, for its part, decided to stick with a two-fish-per-day limit for flatfish anglers fishing out of Southcentral ports near Anchorage, the state's largest city, next year. There had been worries about a reduced limit, as is already in place in the state's Southeast Panhandle because of a shrinking "biomass'' -- as the scientists call it -- of halibut.

The not-so-good news from Fish and Game was related directly -- and sadly -- to that biomass problem. There appear to be plenty of fish, but most of them are small. The state's Preliminary Estimates of Sport Harvests concluded Southcentral anglers caught about 300,000 of the tasty, white-fleshed fish in 2012, about the same as in 2011. But state fisheries biologist Scott Meyer from Homer reported the average size of halibut kept by Southcentral anglers dropped under 15 pounds for the first time ever. Some Kenai River sockeye salmon get bigger than that.

Smaller than sockeyes

A goodly number of Kenai sockeyes, in fact, are as big as the 11.9-pound average for halibut caught by private anglers fishing International Pacific Halibut Commission Area 3A this past summer. Area 3A includes Cook Inlet south of Anchorage and the central Gulf of Alaska. The small size of fish caught by anglers is believed to reflect the fact most of them fish close to shore in small boats -- either in the Inlet, Resurrection Bay or Prince William Sound.

Charter boats tend to range farther offshore, but they weren't exactly finding a lot of hogs out there, either.  Charter catches averaged only 13.3 pounds, a sizable drop from the near 15-pound average of the past two seasons and way below the 20-pound average of only nine years back. The total, combined average for sport-caught halibut was 12.7 pounds.

All together, 2.4 million pounds of halibut was landed by sport charters, some 23 percent beneath a reduced guideline harvest level of 3.1 million pounds.

Small charter harvest 

The silver lining in an all of this was that an advisory committee to the Council calculated that because of the predominance of small fish in the sport catch, the charter harvest is likely to remain under its quota for 2013 and recommended to the Council it thus keep the two fish limit. The Council agreed.

It also decided to leave intact 2012 regulations for the much-smaller Southeast Alaska charter fishery. Restricted to a one-fish bag limit and size restrictions, the charter fishery there caught only 645,000 pounds of its quota of 931,000 pounds. Over the summer, Southeast charter operators said the catch was destined to fall far short of the quota and petitioned to relax catch restrictions. They got nowhere.

Still, state figures indicate the situation in Southeast was better than the summer of 2011, when charter anglers were limited to only one fish less than 37 inches. The catch that year fell to fewer than 40,000 fish, the average size of halibut landed slipped under 10 pounds, and several charter businesses closed their doors.

With a so-called slot limit allowing charter anglers to keep halibut less than 45 inches in length or more than 68 inches in 2012, the catch climbed back up over 40,000 and the average weight increased to almost 15 pounds. Southeast charter operators aren't exactly celebrating, but they say they are better off than they were.

Where it all ends up remains to be seen. The International Pacific Halibut Commission, a joint U.S.-Canada treaty organization that sets catch limits, is warning of continuing declines in halibut stocks, and the North Council, which sets the rules for U.S. fishermen, has vowed to make anglers pay a larger part of the price of conservation.

Meanwhile, fisheries biologists admit to being largely baffled by what is happening. There are indications of food shortages slowing the growth of halibut and leading to premature deaths. There are also concerns about removals of other fish, either as dead bycatch in trawl fisheries or dead discards in longline fisheries that limit the size of halibut that commercial fishermen can keep. The commercial size limit is largely a reflection of the commercial market's dislike of small fish. Biologists have decided it is better for longliners to throw them back and hope they grow.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com