The International Pacific Halibut Commission made the hard choice last week and slashed quotas in several areas.
The quota for the commercial longline fishery in Alaska waters is 16.75 million pounds, a drop of 23 percent from 2013.
Here is the commercial quota breakdown by area:
• 2C, Southeast Alaska: 3.32 million pounds, up 11 percent;
• 3A, Central Gulf of Alaska: 7.32 million pounds, down 34 percent;
• 3B, Western Gulf of Alaska: 2.84 million pounds, also down 34 percent;
• 4A, Eastern Aleutian Islands: 850,000 pounds, down 36 percent;
• 4B, Western Aleutian Islands: 1.14 million pounds, down 2 percent; and
• 4CDE, Bering Sea/Pribilof Islands: 1.28 million pounds, down 34 percent.
The quotas basically follow what used to be called IPHC staff recommendations, but are now known as the “Blue Line” on a decision table that lays out what the likely effect will be on the biomass at various harvest levels.
The steep drop in quotas comes as a shock to some, especially those who bought quota in the early part of this century. The Alaska fishery averaged a harvest of 56.5 million pounds per year in the 10-year period between 1997 and 2006, peaking in 2004 at nearly 60 million pounds. The 2014 quota is down 72 percent from that year.
However, while many are glad to see the IPHC attempt to get under the problem and get the quotas more in line with the biomass, others are not particularly optimistic about the fishery’s future.
Homer fisherman Buck Laukitis, who was very critical of the commissioners’ decision in 2013 to add 23 percent to the Blue Line, said the problem is that the IPHC is only managing a part of the fishery.
“It’s becoming really evident that when you only manage part of the resource, you’re heading for a crack-up,” he said.
Laukitis said that the IPHC has been reluctant to delve into bycatch management, which removes 8-10 million pounds annually from the biomass coast-wide.
“When you look at the Bering Sea, over half of the fish are used by bycatch, and not the directed fishery.”
He pointed to the fact that the Blue Line recommendation for that area was 640,000 pounds, but the quota was set at 1.28 million pounds.
“You’ve got 600,000 pounds there that are coming out of the fishery, above what they’re saying is sustainable,” he said. “What I would like to see the IPHC do is go to the (North Pacific Fishery Management) Council and get 600,000 pounds out of the bycatch.”
He said he didn’t think the commissioners felt comfortable allocating only 640,000 pounds out of the entire Bering Sea, which has 447,000 square miles of fishable waters, when well over twice that goes to bycatch and is discarded.
The decision not to follow the Blue Line for the area was also partly due to heavy lobbying by fishermen and Native groups. The IPHC received 103 comments about catch limits, and every one of them was regarding Area 4E, Pribilof Islands, supporting at least the status quo, which would have been 1.93 million pounds.
Laukitis said that while it may have been the socially responsible thing to do for the area, “it doesn’t save you from the reality of the biology, which is that you’re taking these fish out of the system.”
He said it points to the problem of unchanging bycatch caps, which are notoriously hard to change with the NPFMC being populated with people faithful to the trawling industry.
He said that trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska were boasting of coming in 2 million pounds under the cap last year, but said that it was unlikely because of a change in behavior, and more likely because either they were not counting the fish due to changes in the observer program, or the fish just are not there anymore.
“If the cap is so high that it’s not restraining the (trawl) fishery, well, we’ve got to get that cap in line with where this fishery is.”
Laukitis and many others would like to see the bycatch cap based on abundance, so that everyone shares in the conservation effort.
He said that when the bycatch cap was set in 1992, the directed fishery quota was around 50 million pounds, and questions why, now that the directed fishery is below 20 million pounds, the bycatch is still the same.
“It’s reasonable to ask, ‘why isn’t it half?’”
He also pointed out that the NPFMC took 20 percent of the Pacific cod fishery out of the trawl quota and put it in a pot fishery in state waters, which does not have halibut bycatch, but the cap stayed the same.
He said that the IPHC not managing bycatch leaves yet another hole in the system, one previously made obvious by the retrospective bias, which kept assuming fish were there but were not turning up in the surveys.
“We come back every year and they tell us they’ve fixed the problem, we think we’re taking the right amount, and every year we come back and there’s a hole in the system.”
He likened it to a bucket manufacturer.
“Every year they say ‘oh, yeah, we’re gonna fix the bucket,’ and for the last eight years they’ve been telling us that everything is going to be fine, but they’re still manufacturing a bucket with a hole in it.
“I’m not saying it’s all bycatch, I’m saying there’s a whole bunch of little holes in the system: observer program, bycatch, whale depredation, the fish are growing slower, but when it’s all added up, every year there seems to be a hole. I’m not any more convinced that we’re at the bottom of this thing than I was the last three or four years.”
He said that the increase in Southeast was encouraging, but not necessarily a harbinger of the future for the rest of the fishery.
“You like to think that you take these cuts and you get the bounce, but again, when you’re only managing less than half the resource, you’re not likely to get the gains you want.”
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.