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Halibut regulators keep 2-flatfish limit for Southcentral Alaska anglers

Craig Medred

Charter-boat anglers in the heartland of the Alaska halibut fishery will get at least one more year of good times. Meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, this week, the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) voted to follow the lead of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and maintain a two-fish-per-day limit for charter and other anglers in what’s known as Area 3A.

The news brought a sigh of relief from tourist businesses in Homer, the self-proclaimed "Halibut Capital of the World'', and elsewhere. "The Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is thrilled at the news that the IPHC has upheld the two fish limit for 2013,'' said Monte Davis, the organization's director. "We applaud their wisdom.''

Area 3A blankets the Gulf of Alaska and adjacent waters north and west from Cape Spencer at the northern entrance of the Inside Passage to the western end of Kodiak Island. The state's major ports for charter halibut fishing -- Homer, Seward, Yakutat, Ninilchik, Kodiak and Whittier -- are all within that area. The IPHC is a U.S.-Canada treaty organization with the ultimate say on Pacific coast halibut catches.

To the south of Cape Spencer is Area 2C, which covers the Alaska Panhandle from the tiny community of Elfin Cove south to border between the U.S. and Canada at Dixon EntranceCharter anglers there will be allowed only one fish per day, but will get to keep the same slot limit that charter operators requested and won in 2012. That limit will permit clients to keep a fish shorter than 45 inches in length or longer than 68 inches in length.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the limit for non-guided anglers remains two halibut per day.

The Pacific fisheries council, a U.S. government entity that regulates fisheries in federal waters off Alaska's coast, first recommended the limits for 2013 remain the same after reviewing state data showing the average size of a fish caught in the charter halibut fisheries has been shrinking rapidly, thus reducing how many pounds of halibut tasty filets charter anglers bring home

Halibut shrinking fast

The average charter-caught halibut in Southcentral last year weighed 13.3 pounds -- a whopping 34 percent decline in size from a decade earlier.

Still, those fish were big compared to the 10-pound average for Southeast in 2011. That was the year the council, responding to a strong lobby of commercial fishing interests, imposed a limit in Southeast of one fish per day under 37 inches. Not only did that shrink the average sport-caught, charter halibut to salmon size, it reduced the catch to fewer than 40,000 fish, as many charter anglers simply stayed home. The rule eventually forced some lodges out of business.

They said there was just no way to attract tourists to Alaska with a limit restricted to a single fish of less then 25 pounds.

Commercial fishermen said it was necessary to ensure charter anglers shared the burden of conservation. But not even the council was willing to fully buy that. After the data from 2011 was in, it voted to go with the under-45, over-60 slot limit for 2012. The new rule pushed the catch up to more than 40,000 fish, while the average size climbed to more than 15 pounds. Charter operators in Southeast still aren't happy, but many say they believe they can survive with the limit as it stands.

Some even accept it as necessary given that the halibut commission has for years been warning of declines in halibut numbers for unknown reasons. Scientists say a vast bounty of halibut remains, but a lot of fish are dying for reasons unknown before they reach spawning age. Some fishery observers have blamed incidental catches -- what is called bycatch -- in trawl fisheries for pollock and other species essentially mined from the sea, but the problem appears more complex than can be answered by such a simple accusation.

Mushy-fleshed halibut 

IPHC researchers have noted problems not only with what is called "recruitment,'' the maturation of young fish into the spawning population, but with the slow growth of halibut in general. The fish just aren't growing as fast as in the past, an indication of possible food problems. There have been other indications of food stress. Both anglers and commercial fishermen have reported the increasing appearance of "mushy"-fleshed halibut.

The mushiness is believed to be linked to starvation, which would indicate there is either a food shortage or simply too many small halibut competing for the available food.

Commission staff did note, in a report issued at the meeting in Victoria, that the halibut population decline appears to be stabilizing.

'Decline has now slowed' 

"Including this year’s data,'' they reported, "the results of the 2012 stock assessment indicate that the Pacific halibut stock biomass has been declining continuously over much of the last decade as a result of decreasing size at age as well as below average recruitment.  Based on the reductions in recent harvest levels, evidence from the survey index of abundance, as well as the age-composition data, the stock assessment estimates that the population decline has now slowed and the stock trajectory is relatively flat, with spawning biomass about 5 percent higher than a level which would require a reduction in harvest rate."

Though that sounds better than the forecast a year ago, it still isn't good. Maintaining the same harvest rate on a shrunken biomass of halibut still results in sizeable cuts in catch quotas in the commercial fishery. Coastwide, the commercial quota will drop from 33.8 million pounds last year to 31 million pounds this year.

It could have been far worse. The commission staff recommended a catch of only 22.5 million pounds. A conference board of fishermen and scientists set up by the commission to review that recommendation concluded there was a big enough biomass of spawning adults to support a harvest of 31.18 million pounds, a figure the commissioners later revised downward ever so slightly to 31.03. That’s a big 38 percent more than the staff recommendation.

The big catch increases came primarily in the far western Gulf and the Bering Sea, where the commission upped the staff recommendation by almost 4 million pounds. But there was good news for commercial fishermen in 3A, too. The catch there -- in what the IPHC considers the "nursery'' for Pacific halibut -- increased by almost 1.8 million pounds. The 11.03 million pound quota is better than longline fishermen in 3A feared, but still a long way from the 1980s and early 1990s, when they were catching more than 30 million pounds per year. It’s even a big drop from a decade ago when they were catching 20 to 25 million pounds per year.

As catch drops, prices soar 

The upside for the commercial fishery is that as the volume of the catch has declined, the price paid for halibut has skyrocketed. Halibut "on sale" was going for about $22 per pound this week in online markets.

Unfortunately for Alaska fishermen, and Alaskans in general, those prices don't reflect what fishermen get paid at the dock. Dock prices for halibut last year were about $6 per pound, and a lot of Alaska fish gets processed in the Lower 48, meaning that about all the state gets out of them is what commercial fishermen are paid.

The economics have helped fuel the dispute between commercial and charter fishermen over which offers the biggest economic return for the state.

Stock management has always been dominated by commercial interests. Last fall, those interests convinced the council to reduce by about a quarter the allowable charter catch in Southcentral, known as Area 3A, and by about third in Southeast, Area 2C, beginning next year.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game halibut biologist Scott Meyer has projected that cuts of that size will almost certainly force bag-limit reductions in the 3A halibut charter fishery. Tourism suffered greatly in the Panhandle when the charter halibut bag limits there were slashed from two to one fish in 2009.

State officials have remained silent about what many in the tourism business fear is a coming disaster. Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell, a member of the council, sat silent when the cuts were proposed, and the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell has said nothing about them since.

The council proposal for 2014 must still be reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has, on rare occasions, overruled the body.

On the whole, though, the commercial-fishery dominated council and the science-oriented Alaska branch of NOAA, have remained chummy over the years.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com