Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 3:45 PM on Wednesday, January 11, 2012

IPHC to meet in Anchorage Jan. 24-27 to decide halibut quotas

By Cristy Fry

When the International Pacific Halibut Commission meets in Anchorage later this month, in addition to deciding on how drastic quota cuts should be, they will be reviewing comments submitted regarding staff recommendations for those cuts.

Several of those comments are critical of the commission's move last year from a "slow up, fast down," or SUFD policy to a "slow up, full down" or SUFuD policy. SUFD, which had been in place since 1998, meant managers increased quotas slowly, by 33 percent of the annual "fishery constant exploitation yield," or percentage of the biomass that can be sustainably harvested, when stocks were projected to build, and dropped quotas more quickly, by 50 percent of FCEY when stocks were falling, somewhat cushioning the blow to the fishery. SUFuD maintains the 33 percent quota increase on rising biomass, but drops straight to the FCEY when the biomass of harvestable fish goes down.

That change of policy last year meant a quota drop of almost 50 percent in Southeast Alaska in 2011 and a 28 percent drop in the central Gulf of Alaska. Under the old policy, those reductions would have been cut in half.

In a lengthy and detailed comment, Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, argues for returning to SUFD.

Behnken says that the SUFuD policy was hastily enacted with no public review and was based on a study of the SUFD policy that narrowly focused on the previous four years of declining stocks rather than the full history of the policy.

"A more comprehensive look at the actual performance of the (SUFD) policy shows that it has performed as intended; it has reduced volatility while new information is introduced and refined in the stock assessment and harvest policy process, and it has balanced removals over time when viewed from a coast-wide or individual area basis," she writes.

"Stakeholders are concerned with the creditability of the stock assessment and apportionment process when all gains shown by the model are suspect, and all reductions must be immediately implemented whether real or not," she continutes.

"No other fishery in the North Pacific that we are aware of operates this way. Returning to the (SUFD) policy provides balanced transitions that have proven to meet the needs of the stakeholders and the resource."

Behnken and others, including Tom Gemmell of the Halibut Coalition, also are recommending outside review of the stock assessment process.

Gemmell writes, "We remain concerned about the future abundance of the halibut resource and the profound impact the quota reductions will have on fishermen, processors, and communities who have invested in halibut quota share or supporting infrastructure. We support external review of the halibut stock assessment model and process to ensure the retrospective behavior is addressed with minimum disruption to the industry."

Other comments include a return to a closed area stock assessment, rather than the current coast-wide policy, enacted in 2006. The closed-area assessment assumed that each area was a distinct population, something that tagging studies proved to be inaccurate. The studies showed a west-east migration pattern.

One issue that did not receive much comment but many hope will gain traction between the IPHC and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch of halibut, a figure that is set by the NPFMC.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council website states, "While commercial and recreational fishermen have experienced dramatic cuts in their harvests over past years due to declines in the exploitable halibut biomass, the limit on halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska has not been changed since 1986. Currently there is a halibut bycatch limit of 2,300 metric tons in the Gulf of Alaska — or just over 5 million pounds."

The IPHC will hold its annual meeting in Anchorage this year, rather than Vancouver, B.C., for the first time in recent memory. Meetings start Jan. 24 and run through Jan. 27 at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel, 500 W. Third Ave. Discount room rates for attendees are available through the IPCH website at www.iphc.washington.edu/home.html.

Halibut fishermen who were cheered by the record prices paid for halibut during the 2011 season might think they were fishing for peanuts when they consider the record price paid for any fish anywhere, ever, bought at auction last week in Japan: $736,000 for one 593-pound bluefin tuna, which comes to $1,241 per pound.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the fish was caught off of the northeastern coast of Japan, close to where the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami cost so many lives and wreaked so much havoc that is still ongoing.

The first auction of the year at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market is a celebration in Japan, and the buyer paid the price for the fish to try to give a boost to the country after the devastating tsunami. It is the first time in several years that the first fish has gone to a Japanese buyer.

The winning bidder was Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Co., which operates the Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain.

"Japan has been through a lot the last year due to the disaster," a beaming Kimura told AP Television News. "Japan needs to hang in there. So I tried hard myself and ended up buying the most expensive one."

Kimura also said he wanted to keep the fish in Japan "rather than let it get taken overseas."

Bluefin tuna is prized for its tender red meat. The best slices of fatty bluefin, called "o-toro" in Japan, can sell for $24 per piece at upscale Tokyo sushi bars.

The Chronicle reports that Kimura is sharing the wealth, selling the record-busting fish at a considerable loss, with pieces at one of his sushi restaurants going for $5.45. If he were to sell it at cost, without even accounting for loss due to unsaleable parts such as head, guts, fins and skin (the fish was sold whole), it would have to go for $96 per piece.

"It's superb. I can do nothing but smile. I am very happy," said Kosuke Shimogawara, a 51-year-old customer. "It's unbelievable. President Kimura is so generous. I have to say thank you to him."

The sale comes at a time when both Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tuna stocks are stressed. Because they are highly migratory and often caught far out to sea, they are managed by international treaty. In the case of Pacific stocks, it is more of a "gentlemen's agreement" to not exceed current harvest levels.

NMFS considers both Atlantic and Pacific stocks over-fished.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.