Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 4:51 PM on Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Future may hold deeper halibut quota reductions

The International Pacific Halibut Commission wrapped up its 88th annual meeting last week at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel by setting catch limits and opening and closing dates for the 2012 season, ruling on regulatory proposals, and discussing the troubled waters ahead for the fishery.

The commission stuck fairly close to staff recommendations in setting catch limits for the 2012 season, with the notable exception of raising the catch limit for Canadian waters, area 2B, by 400,000 pounds over those recommendations.

The catch limits for the upcoming season are as follows:

• Area 2A, covering Washington, Oregon and California: 989,000 pounds, up from 910,000 pounds in 2011;

• Area 2B, Canadian waters: 7.04 million pounds, down from 7.65 million pounds in 2011 (staff recommendation was for 6.67 million pounds);

• Area 2C, Southeast Alaska: 2.62 million pounds, up from 2.33 million pounds in 2011;

• Area 3A, central Gulf of Alaska: 11.92 million pounds, down from 14.36 million pounds in 2011;

• Area 3B, from the south end of Kodiak Island to Unimak Pass: 5.07 million pounds, down from 7.51 million pounds in 2011;

• Area 4A, eastern Aleutian Islands: 1.57 million pounds, down from 2.41 million pounds in 2011;

• Area 4B, western Aleutian Islands: 1.87 million pounds, down from 2.18 million pounds in 2011;

• Areas 4CDE, Bering Sea and Pribilof Islands: 2.46 million pounds, down from 3.72 million pounds in 2011.

The total for all areas comes to 33.54 million pounds, down 18 percent from last season. The total for Alaska waters is 25.51 million pounds, down 22 percent from 2011.

The increase in area 2B was largely a result of the desires of the Canadian contingent on the Conference Board, an advisory body made up of various fishing groups and tribal councils from both countries.

Members of the Conference Board pointed out that Canada has never accepted the IPHC's method of apportioning quota to the various areas, taking issue with the way scientific uncertainty in the models is resolved.

In their rationale for asking for the higher catch limit, they pointed out that the weight per unit of effort (pounds caught per skate) in the 2B IPHC survey has been stable over the past few years, and the WPUE in the commercial fishery has been going up, unlike areas to the west.

They agreed to accept the staff-recommended catch limit of 6.63 million pounds, a cut of 1 million pounds over 2011, only if area 3A was designated as an "area of special concern," a move that would change the formula for determining quota from the current 21.5 percent of the exploitable biomass to 16.1 percent, a move that the U.S. side of the Conference Board was unwilling to accept.

The Canadian statement read: "Area 3A is the geographic center of the halibut stock and Canada is very concerned, given what happens in that area impacts Area 2B. Canada believes the declines in WPUE in Area 3 and the lack of progress in addressing bycatch (mobile and fixed gear) in all western areas warrants a more risk-averse approach for all of Area 3."

Area 3B and other areas to the west are already operating under the "area of special concern" protocol.

A compromise was reached by lowering the 2B quota by 600,000 pounds.

The bycatch issue received a great deal of attention at the meeting. Millions of pounds of halibut are taken as bycatch in the trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and thrown overboard dead, something that is much more tightly regulated in Canadian waters.

Many meeting attendees pointed to the probability that lack of 100 percent of observer coverage on trawlers undoubtedly causes under-reporting of halibut bycatch, which could account for a substantial portion of the "missing" exploitable biomass in what is known as the "retrospective bias" problem.

There was a general consensus among fishermen that trawler bycatch should be tied to abundance. When the quota for the directed fishery goes down, the allowable bycatch should also go down.

There is a bycatch workshop set for late April in Seattle to look for answers to the bycatch problem, but the ultimate answer lies with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the body that sets the bycatch rules, and which is dominated by trawling interests.

There was considerable discussion regarding the retrospective bias, the term used to describe the revelation that the IPHC has underestimated total biomass removals since at least 2005, which has led to the determination that the exploitable biomass, the total poundage of fish available for harvest, is not as much as was previously thought.

Essentially, legal-sized fish have been disappearing from the fishery at unexplainable rates.

Fish the IPHC thought would be available for harvest were not, and because of years of cumulative overestimation, IPHC staff biologists have said that in order to have a sustainable fishery, the halibut quota may need to be cut much deeper, perhaps to as little as 11 million pounds in Alaska waters.

At the interim meeting in November, lead staff biologist Dr. Stephen Hare said that one or two years of overestimating exploitable biomass is not a big deal. But with the years piling up, "now it is a big deal," he said. "It's troubling."

At last week's meeting he added, "We have a lot of work to do to solve the retrospective issue, which is the primary thing that we need to do. This is a serious issue."

During a question and answer session between the public and commission members, Blake Tipton, president of the Halibut Association of North America, asked IPHC director Bruce Lehman the question on everyone's minds in light of the continuing decrease in quotas: "What you're asking is for us to swallow a big, expensive pill, as you have many times over the years. Is this the bottom? Or are you going to come back next year and take more cuts?"

Lehman gave the answer no one wanted to hear.

"I don't know if this is the bottom," he said. "We certainly have not, in some areas, seen the bottom."

The commission set the season opening date for March 17 and closure for Nov. 7, a compromise that was arranged between the Canadian contingent and the U.S. processors.

The Canadians were in favor of a later closing date, Nov. 17, because of concurrent fisheries in their waters where the trawlers are required to have halibut IFQs to cover their bycatch. When the halibut season closes, those fisheries are also closed regardless of remaining quota because they are unable to deliver halibut.

The U.S. processors wanted an earlier closure because of the cost of keeping a crew on standby at the end of the season when deliveries are sparse.

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