Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 11:50 AM on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Halibut news gets worse

Halibut fishermen who are bracing for more across-the-board cuts for the 2012 season got confirmation of that likelihood for most areas except, notably, Southeast Alaska, when the International Pacific Halibut Commission staff released its recommendations for next year's fishery catch limits at last week's interim meeting. The IPHC staff is recommending the following commercial fishing quotas:

• Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, 2.62 million pounds, up 12 percent;

• Area 3A, central Gulf of Alaska, 11.92 million pounds, down 17 percent;

• Area 3B, from the Trinity Islands south of Kodiak to Unimak Pass, 5.07 million pounds, down 32 percent;

• Area 4A, eastern Aleutian Islands, 1.57 million pounds, down 35 percent;

• Area 4B, western Aleutian Islands, 1.87 million pounds, down 14 percent; and

• Areas 4CDE, Bering Sea and Pribilof Islands, 2.47 million pounds, down 34 percent.

The recommended cuts equal a 22 percent reduction statewide, at a total of 25.52 million pounds, down from 32.51 million pounds in Alaska waters in 2011.

If the commission holds to staff recommendations, it would be a small but welcome relief for Southeast fishermen, who have seen their quota cut by a total of 79 percent since 2005, including a jaw-dropping 47 percent last season. The quota in 2005 was 10.9 million pounds.

The recommended cuts to Area 3A, which includes Homer, would mean a 55 percent reduction since the 2007 quota of 26.2 million pounds. The 3A quota held steady in the 22 to 25 million pound range from 2001 to 2009.

The recommended guideline harvest level for the charter fleet is 3.1 million pounds, a 15 percent reduction since the 2010 GHL of 3.65 million pounds.

However, the staff recommendations are not even the bad news.

Staff biologists announced at the meeting that they have been overestimating halibut biomass for at least 10 years, something they have discovered via surveys and at the end of the year when all the catch data was returned from all sources. Each year they would revise the biomass estimate lower, but then the following year they would find that the lower estimate was still not low enough.

A large part of the problem is that catch limits are based on exploitable biomass, fish that are over 32 inches, and the slow growth rate of halibut over the past 15 years has made it difficult for researchers to pin down that number, despite a number of changes to computer models and survey methods. They are still saying that the total biomass is the largest ever, but very few of those fish are growing to exploitable size, about 6 percent.

Many reach maturity without ever reaching the 32-inch threshold.

Researchers said that they have not been able to determine why they have been so consistently off-target, but that smaller quotas probably should have been in place since 2005.

Lead staff biologist Dr. Stephen Hare said at the meeting 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."

The upshot is that legal-sized fish have been disappearing from the fishery at unexplainable rates. Fish they thought would be available for harvest were not, and because of years of cumulative overestimation, what they termed "retroactive analysis," IPHC staff biologists are saying that in order to have a sustainable fishery, the halibut catch may need to be cut much, much deeper, perhaps to as little as 11 million pounds in Alaska waters.

The breakdown by area would be 2C, 1.06 million pounds; 3A, 5.28 million pounds; 3B, 2.46 million pounds; 4A, 628,000 pounds; 4B, 968,000 pounds: and 4CDE, 606,000 pounds.

While that is not what the staff is actually recommending, due to policy constraints, it is obviously something the IPHC will need to take into consideration at the annual meeting.

That meeting takes place in Anchorage at the Hilton Hotel at 500 W. 3rd Ave., from Jan. 24 through Jan. 27.

The IPHC is accepting comments on the catch limit recommendations until Dec. 30. Submission forms can be found at www.iphc.washington.edu/home.html.

The Seattle Times is reporting that Canadian scientist Molly Kibenge had research showing that Infectious Salmon Anemia existed in wild salmon from Alaska and Canada as early as 2002, and kept that information under wraps.

The Canadian government researcher said she found a similar virus in more than 100 wild fish from the Bering Sea to Vancouver Island.

Canadian officials never told the public or scientists in the United States about those tests — not even after evidence of the virus discovered in October was treated as an international emergency, according to documents and emails obtained by The Seattle Times.

The researcher's work surfaced only this week after she sought and was denied permission by a Canadian official to try to have her old data published in a scientific journal.

The virus never has been confirmed on the West Coast by follow-up tests, but word of the earlier research raises new questions about the Canadian agency charged with assessing the risk. Environmentalists in Canada and some U.S. politicians worry that Fisheries and Oceans Canada may be ill-equipped to deal aggressively with the risk because it's responsible both for protecting the country's wild fish and for promoting British Columbia's salmon farms.

Scientists in Alaska and the rest of the United States have said that having that information would have changed the discussion entirely.

"We had no knowledge of any of this," said Jim Winton, a top fish virologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, who reviewed the researcher's findings this week. "No one ever revealed that there was a publication that was ready to go to a journal or that the data were as compelling as they appear to be. This is puzzling and very frustrating. It's unfortunate that this information was not available sooner. This should have been followed up years ago."

Ted Meyers, Alaska's chief fish pathologist, agreed.

"If it were my lab," he said, "we would have looked a lot more thoroughly before we let 10 years pass. I have great respect for the scientists at Fisheries and Oceans, but I think sometimes the politicians get in the way."

U.S. scientists agree that a fuller airing of Kibenge's work may well have tempered initial fears this fall. Her research points away from the possibility that any ISA virus found in wild Pacific salmon likely started with farmed fish.

"Maybe we've got our own homegrown version of ISA right here," Meyers said.

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