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Suddenly shrinking population of sizable halibut has regulators flummoxed

Craig Medred
Brad Fluetsch via Vimeo

The halibut fishery of the North Pacific -- long touted as a model for wise fisheries management and the goodness of privatizing commercial fisheries -- is now in such dire straits regulators were Wednesday talking about the possible need to cut harvests to levels not seen since the 1930s.

The problem? Adult flatfish are disappearing from the population at unexplainable rates, the International Pacific Halibut Commission was told Wednesday at a meeting in Seattle.

Adult fish comprise what the scientists who work for the commission call the "exploitable biomass." These are the halibut capable of breeding and reproducing.

These are also the fish targeted by commercial fishermen.

"Seventy percent of the total commercial catch is female," commission lead biologist Steven Hare said. The most common halibut caught by commercial longliners, according to commission studies, are 12-year-old females. Those fish comprise more than 15 percent of the entire commercial catch. If life has gone well for such halibut, and they've grown fast enough, they'll likely get to spawn once before they're killed. Commission studies indicate about 50 percent of females reach sexual maturity by age 12.

Those that live to be 13 have an even better chance of getting to spawn, but they are also heavily harvested. They comprise more than 10 percent of the commercial catch, according to Hare. All told commercial fishermen take more than a quarter of the allowable harvest of halibut just as the fish are fully reaching spawning age.

But that is not the real problem at the moment, Hare said. The real problem is what he called "unspecified mortality." Halibut are disappearing from the population for reasons managers can only guess at. "It's troubling," Hare said.

Were managers to take these mystery disappearances fully into consideration, he added, they would be forced to recommend drastic cuts in commercial harvests.

One model that does this, he said, suggested setting catches "28 percent lower than the lowest level since 1935." Catches, or at least legal catches, have already been pushed down 55 percent in the past decade, and they are for sure going down again.

The only real question is how far down.

Hare did not go into the possible reasons for the mysterious decline in what might be called eating-size halibut, but others have. There is a long list of possibilities -- disease, starvation due to competition for food and, of course, overfishing in any of a variety of forms:

  • Dead halibut discarded in the halibut fishery itself because they are too small or don't look good -- what the commission calls wastage.
  • Dead halibut discarded in trawl fisheries -- what the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council calls "bycatch.'' Federal law prohibits keeping these fish so as to discourage the big boats dragging trawls nets for pollock and Pacific perch from targeting more valuable halibut.
  • Dead halibut discarded from longline fisheries that are supposed to be catching other species of fish, such as sablefish, but catch a lot of halibut anyway.

Illegal fishing?

And there is always the possibility of good, old-fashioned, illegal fishing. Privatization of the halibut fishery was supposed to put an end to this. It gave halibut fishermen an ownership interest in the fish. This was called the individual fishing quota, and it was supposed to help make the average commercial halibut fishermen into a wise steward of the resource.

There is only one problem with this theory, as illegal fishing by IFQ holder Arne Fuglvog demonstrated in a big way:

Illegal fishing by an individual IFQ holder doesn't penalize the fisherman, it penalizes the collective. As Fuglvog -- a former fisheries aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- well understood, his illegal fishing would only cost him if he was caught. If he got away, he'd just make more money, and any penalty for his overfishing would be paid by all fishermen in the form of reduced quotas, such as those now being proposed for the halibut fishery.

Thus Fuglvog, it is now known, for years engaged in illegal fishing, while at the same time masquerading as a voice for fisheries conservation.

He was a member of the powerful North Pacific Fishery Management Council before he became an aide to Alaska's senior senator, and he was in line to move on from Murkowski's office to head the National Marine Fisheries Service -- which oversees commercial fishing in all U.S. coastal waters -- when disgruntled crew members outed him as a fish pirate and outlaw.

Hare did not comment Wednesday on whether outlaws like Fuglvog could have played a part in the "unspecified mortality," but he did note that the "unspecified mortality" is now large enough to cause some big "mis-estimations'' in fishing quotas set by the commission.

Estimating quotas

The International Pacific Halibut Commission is a treaty organization that sets the halibut harvest quotas for both the U.S. and Canada. Individual governments retain the authority to decide how and by whom -- commercial, recreational or subsistence interests -- the fish are actually caught.

The commission tries to set harvest quotas aimed at catching "surplus" fish and protecting spawning stocks. The harvest quota for IPHC Area 3A -- Cook Inlet and the northern Gulf of Alaska south of Anchorage -- was this year set at nearly 14.4 million pounds.

Hare told the commission that it now appears to have been too high due to one of those "mis-estimations." If the existing management model was used to set the quota for next year, he said, it would allow fishermen about 11.9 million pounds.

But, he added, a model that factors in "retrospective mis-estimation" suggests the quota should really be cut to about 5.3 million pounds to protect the spawning stocks of halibut.

A reporter listening to the commission meeting on a webcast could almost hear the jaws of the commissioners hitting the table. Some responded by asking how commission staff could even suggest such a low harvest when the biomass of halibut in the North Pacific is near record highs. Hare, having already explained that most of the fish are small and immature, had to repeat it again.

The total biomass, he said, is large, but the "exploitable biomass" -- the number of all-important spawners -- is small. It's nice to have a lot of small, sexually immature halibut swimming around in the Pacific, he said, but commission scientists don't think it's wise to gamble on large numbers of them surviving long enough to spawn.

The scientists believe the wise thing is to ensure an adequate number of fish keep spawning until new spawners begin to join the population.

What the commission, which has the finally say, will do remains clear. The commission meeting continues Thursday.

The big battle over halibut in Alaska has up to this point centered on a war between sport and commercial fishermen in Alaska.

Charter crackdown

The commercial fishermen pushed the North Pacific Council, which is pretty much run by commercial fishing interests, to this year crack down on charter boat anglers as a "conservation problem," even though they account for less than 10 percent of the halibut catch in Alaska.

The charter interests fought back and convinced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to kill a council plan that would have reduced the bag limit for charter anglers to a single fish next summer. NOAA sent that plan back to the council for further consideration.

A report to the commission Wednesday said the 2011 charter catch for Area 3A -- Cook Inlet and the north Gulf of Alaska -- was 22 percent under the fishery's guideline harvest level this year. That marked the fourth year in a row the largest charter halibut fishery in Alaska has fallen significantly under its limit of 3.5 million pounds of halibut. The fishery has only once gone over its quota, and then just barely.

The news out of the commission, however, was not likely to make it any easier for the charter boat operators to defend that quota when the North Pacific Council again takes up the matter at a meeting in early December in Anchorage.

A 3.5 -illion-pound slice of 14.4-million-pound quota didn't sit well this year with the commercial fishermen who wield great influence with the Council. A 3.5 million pound cut out of an 11.9 million pound quota would go down even harder.

And if the Commission were to go all in on trying to save halibut and cut the 3A quota to 5.3 million pounds to be split between the commercial and charter fisheries?

Well, everyone involved in the issue can pretty much agree that would cause all sorts of hell to break loose.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com