By Hannah Heimbuch
Pacific Northwest halibut fishermen are looking at another year of lower catch limits, according to a recent announcement from the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
In the Alaska Gulf — Area 3A, including Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Valdez — fishermen are allotted a total harvest of 9.43 million pounds — 7.31 million commercial and 1.782 million for the guided sport sector.
The catch limit in 2013 was 11.03 million in Area 3A for commercial alone, but a new management plan combines commercial, recreational and wastage allowances in 2014.
“It does not compare with 2013 directly because the guided recreational and wastage is part of the Catch Sharing Plan implemented by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council beginning this year,” said local halibut fisherman and commissioner Don Lane. Lane has been fishing halibut out of Homer for more than 30 years, and is the newest commissioner on the IPHC.
“2013 IPHC catch limits only included commercial-directed halibut fishery,” he said.
The total allowable catch for Pacific Northwest fishermen in 2014 is 27.515 million pounds. When the sport and wastage numbers are backed out, Lane said, that represents a 20 percent drop for the commercial sector compared to 2013. In Area 3A, that drop is closer to 33 percent for commercial fishermen. The guided sport sector also will have strict limits, holding them to two fish, only one of which may be longer than 29 inches.
The numbers put up by the commission last week are appropriate, Lane said, given the regionwide decline in biomass and the catch and weight reports coming from commercial logbooks. Policymakers hope that sufficient cuts to harvest volume will help the declining halibut resource turn a corner back toward healthier numbers.
The commission is starting to see signs that this strategy is working in Southeast Alaska.
“There are encouraging signs from Area 2C, which have had substantial cuts in previous years,” Lane said. “The 2C survey (weight per unit effort) and catch (weight per unit effort) are positive in 2013. That uptick was positive enough in a number of indicators that the commission felt additional cuts were not warranted and a slight increase was allowed. However, the 2C catch is still at very low levels compared to the last 20 years.”
The Southeast combined commercial and guided sport-allowable catch for 2014 is 4.16 million pounds, the only sector to increase this year.
Fishermen are looking at 2.84 million pounds, down from 4.29 in the western Gulf of Alaska; 850,000 pounds, down from 1.33 million in the eastern Aleutians; 1.14 million, down from 1.45 million in the western Aleutians; and 1.285 million, down from 1.93 million in the Bering Sea region.
British Columbia catch limits are down to 6.85 million pounds from the 7.04 million allowed in 2013.
The commission also approved a fishing season beginning March 8 and ending Nov. 7.
Commission cuts reflect a serious state of affairs for Pacific halibut, Lane said, a downward trend fishermen have been attempting to weather for a decade.
“For a number of uncertain reasons the halibut stock levels seems to be declining to historical levels coastwide,” Lane said. “The past 20 years have been a very productive halibut time compared to halibut abundance levels dating back to late 1800s. Now we are faced with lower abundance levels, smaller size-at-age issues, and adaptation of modern management models to fluctuating stock levels. In addition, there is more demand than ever for halibut from many different users. Commercial, recreational guided, sport, subsistence, personal use and, of course, bycatch all require an amount of halibut.”
There are more challenges than ever to maintaining a sustainable stock that will be around to sustain economy, culture and food for future generations of Alaskans. And the burn of that effort will be felt by halibut fishermen around the Northwest, Lane said.
“It will continue to be a difficult time for halibut users,” he said. “Commercial halibut fisherman in area 3A have faced more than 60 percent reductions in catch since 2006.”
A fisherman that owned 10,000 pounds of quota eight years ago now has roughly 3,000 pounds, Lane said.
The commission also heard reports on bycatch, which continues to be a serious issue, from around the region. The commission will be providing input on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s new observer program, intended to reduce and record bycatch.
This first meeting as a commissioner was a positive one, Lane said, though it faced difficult decisions surrounding a struggling resource.
“These decisions affected many of my friends, as well as my own catch,” Lane said. “As Friday approached — decision day — the burden of good responsibility gets heavier. Finding the balance between the needs of sustainable resource, needs of users and needs of management staff makes for thoughtful self-evaluation.”
That being said, Lane is hopeful that these decisions mean a stronger resource for his fellow fishermen and halibut consumers in the future.