The International Pacific Halibut Commission wrapped up its meeting in Anchorage last week with all areas of Alaska except the western Gulf of Alaska seeing a decrease in quota.
The hardest hit areas were the central Gulf of Alaska, the eastern Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea/Pribilof Islands, all seeing double-digit drops.
The only areas coast-wide that saw an increase in quota were British Columbia and the West Coast.
Catch limits for the 2020 commercial fishery in Alaska are:
Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, 3.41 million pounds, down 5.5%; Area 3A, central GOA, 7.05 million pounds, down 12.5%; Area 3B, western GOA, 2.41 million pounds, up 3.4%; Area 4A, eastern Aleutian Islands, 1.41 million pounds, down 14.5%; Area 4B, western Aleutian Islands, 1.1 million pounds, down 9.1%; and Area 4CDE, Bering Sea/Pribilof Islands, 1.73 million pounds, down 15.2%.
In his presentation to the Commission, lead quantitative scientist Dr. Ian Stewart repeated what had been noted during the interim meeting in December: Survey trends are down.
“This was predicted, both in numbers (per unit of effort) and weight per unit of effort,” he said. “In addition, we’ve seen mixed signals in the commercial (catch per unit of effort, or CPUE). Some regulatory areas were up, and some were down.”
He noted that the survey and the commercial fishery don’t always match on an area-by-area basis but on aggregate they are generally fairly similar, and in the 2019 survey the CPUE was generally flat coastwide.
Stewart said that the downward trend of the past several years would be expected to continue if total removals exceed 18.4 million pounds, known as TCEY, or total constant exploitation yield, given weak recruitments throughout the stock.
That is substantially smaller than recent yields from the stock, he said.
The coastwide TCEY in 2019 was 38.61 million pounds.
“What this indicates is that the productivity of the stock remains low. We have some small recruitments making their way through the fishery and then subsequently into the spawning biomass over the next three to five years, and over that time period we should essentially expect a decline in spawning biomass,” Stewart added.
One tiny bright spot was a small bump in recruit stocks from 2011 and 2012, fish that were first seen in the 2018 survey, and part of the justification for some of the quota increases last season, as well as a 2005 slightly larger year-class that continues to move through the fishery.
Stewart said those 2011-2012 fish were seen again in the 2019 survey.
“Those fish are now seven and eight years old in the 2019 data. This is good news that we can see these two year-classes tracking forward,” he said. “Not only are we seeing these year classes in the setline survey data, but we’re also seeing them in the non-directed fishery catches, we’re seeing them in the recreational catches, and we’re just starting to see the first hint of these in the commercial fishery landings as well.”
North Pacific Fisheries Association president and halibut fisherman Malcolm Milne noted that Area 2B, British Columbia, has essentially negotiated their way into a larger percentage of the quota than the biological distribution of the fish warrants, which is why 2B saw a slight bump of 0.4% this year, and that halibut fishermen in U.S. waters need to join forces rather than having each area lobby for their own interests.
“Area 3B got a bump, but not near what they could have gotten (if not for 2B’s percentage), because they had really good surveys and really good commercial catches,” he said. “We have to get more focused and negotiate as a country.”
He said the Canadians kept bringing up the bycatch issue, that U.S. trawlers discard more than the directed fishery catches in the Bering Sea, an issue that has been fought over for more than 30 years.
There has been an effort by some members of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which sets bycatch levels, to tie bycatch to resource abundance, so that when directed fishery quotas go down bycatch levels do as well. However, that effort has languished on the Council’s agenda with no action for five years.
Milne said that bycatch levels in Alaska waters have been going down, although he suggested much of that is due to a lack of fisheries.
“With the cod quota crashing, there’s most likely going to be less bycatch,” he said.
He also said that the IPHC is working on a permanent management procedure rather than using interim management procedures from year to year, one that hopefully will be scientifically vetted, but that the agreement with Canada setting their %age of the overall quota is in place until 2022, so it would be at least until then before it could be put into action.
The IPHC does have a mechanism in place to take economic hardship in the coastal communities into account when setting catch levels, which has justified some of the decision-making in the past, but Milne said that may be short-sighted.
“Our short-term economic hardships are going to turn into the end of the fishery at this rate,” he said.
After noting some fairly substantial differences in catch rates between fixed and snap on gear in logbooks kept by fishermen, the setline survey project did a gear comparison study in 2019.
All stations in Area 2C were fished twice, once with fixed gear and once with snap on. The results showed on average that the estimated catch in weight per unit effort (WPUE) and numbers per unit effort (NPUE) for snap on gear was 86% that of fixed gear, or snap on being 14% less efficient, although there was quite a bit of uncertainty, with the catch difference ranging from 25% less on snap on to no difference between the two. The results imply the need for additional data.
Last year was the sixth and final year of an expanded setline survey that was intended to collect data in previously un-surveyed areas in order to reduce bias and uncertainty in WPUE and NPUE indices. Each regulatory area saw expanded survey stations in different years, with the 2019 survey expanded in Areas 3A and 3B. The survey was expanded 18% and 19% in those areas respectively.
The result was an improved understanding of Pacific halibut density and distribution and a reduced uncertainty of the WPUE and NPUE in most regulatory areas, and the IPHC reports that those improvements were apparent throughout the six years, not just during the year of the expansion in each area.
The commercial halibut fishery opens March 14 and closes Nov. 15.
Cristy Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
• By Cristy Fry, Special to the Homer News