February 2, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 5

A look at the drop in halibut catch numbers

As expected there will be less halibut available for fishermen to catch this year – an 18% drop to 33 million pounds, to be split among fisheries along the west coast, British Columbia and Alaska. That follows a 19% cut to the catch last year.

The announcement was made at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting last week in Anchorage. Alaska always gets the lion’s share of the catch, which this year will be 25.5 million pounds.

Driving the fishing decreases: Pacific halibut stocks continue a decade long decline, there appears to be little recruitment of fish entering the fishery, the fish are smaller than they should be at age – and, most troubling, scientists believe they have overestimated the halibut biomass for years.

Most stakeholders were accepting of the catch limits, but the overall mood was concern over the status of the halibut stocks, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance.

The 800 pound gorilla in the meeting room was the millions of pounds of halibut that is taken as bycatch in other Alaska fisheries and, by law, discarded. While the IPHC sets catch limits for the halibut fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees the limits for halibut allowed to be taken as bycatch in federally managed fisheries.

“It’s a bit uncomfortable to be from Alaska where we supposedly have sustainable fisheries and the best management in the world,” Hansen said. “And we have the Pacific Council and Canada saying, ‘hey, we’ve dealt with getting a better observer program, we’ve reduced bycatch significantly with new programs and what are you guys in Alaska doing?’ All we can say is the (North Pacific) Council is looking at things again.”

“It’s time for them to get serious and make some accommodations so we can say, yes we are moving towards trying to identify how much bycatch is being taken in fisheries and reduce that amount.”

Five bycatch related motions were adopted by the IPHC Conference Board, a panel that includes 30 commercial and sport users from the US, and 21 from Canada “to give the fishers perspective,” according to the IPHC website.

“The Board believes that accurate accounting of all removals is critical for development of accurate stock assessment, and for understanding the health of the halibut resource and the exploitable biomass available to the directed fisheries,” it stated in the 2012 meeting minutes.

The Conference Board said it wants a report next January that identifies areas that might be designated as nursery grounds, and assesses the future impacts on the stocks if those areas were closed to all taking of halibut. The Board also strongly recommended that federal managers implement the Restructured Observer Program in 2013.

The 2012 halibut fishery will open March 17. Here are the Alaska catch limits, in millions of pounds:

2C (Southeast): 2.6m, up 12%

3A (Central Gulf): 11.9m, down 17%

3B (Western Gulf): 5m, down 32%

4A (Aleutians): 1.5m, down 35%

4B (Aleutians): 1.8m, down 17%

4CDE (Bering Sea): 2.4m, down 34%

Fish on ice - High winds, frigid temperatures and sea ice have put the brakes on Alaska’s winter fisheries, and hundreds of boats are tied to the docks awaiting a break in the weather.

“It is the coldest I’ve seen in 10 years of fishing,” said Nick Mangini, skipper of the Kodiak-based F/V Enterprise, which has been targeting pot cod since the start of the year. “I’m glad I’m in the wheelhouse, but I really feel for the guys on deck.”

What forecasters call ‘big ice’ has blocked the Bering Sea snow crab fishery with floes a foot and a half thick and 15 miles wide. The pack also is moving more quickly, according to National Weather Service ice watchers - 20 miles a day instead of the usual 2 – 3 miles.

The ice can drag crab pots for miles and pop the marker buoys, making it tough for crabbers to even find them. More than 8,000 crab pots are on the Bering Sea grounds, and at $1,000 per pot, the loss can be costly.

Fortunately, the lost pots will not continue ‘ghost fishing.’ All pot gear in Alaska fisheries is required to use biodegradable twine and escape panels to allow crabs and smaller species to go free.

Along with the crabbers, pollock boats also are being frozen out of their fishery. The trawl season opened January 20 but the weather had kept most of the Bering Seas boats tied up to the Dutch Harbor docks.

A fleet of 80 catcher boats and 16 at sea processors are expected on the fishing grounds for a catch of nearly 3 billion pounds, split between winter and summer seasons.

Another quarter of a million pounds will come from the Gulf of Alaska, a 21% increase from last year. That 50 boat fleet also was on delay due to weather, and they are waiting for the valuable pollock roe to ripen. The rest of the pollock is made into fillets and surimi, and market watchers say demand is strong for all three products, at home and in foreign markets.

The outlook for Alaska pollock is good, thanks to lots of young fish growing into the fishery. In the eastern Bering Sea, dubbed the nation’s “fish basket”, year classes from 2006 and 2008 are up 17% and 26%, respectively. That pollock will fuel the fishery for the next few years. Alaska pollock is the nation’s largest fishery, accounting for nearly 35% of U.S. seafood landings.

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