In many cases rightly so, Alaska is not bashful about touting itself as a model for sustainable fisheries management.
When it comes to halibut, however, the glaring deficiencies in Alaskan management compared to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest were under scrutiny at the International Pacific Halibut Commission annual meeting in Anchorage Jan. 24 to Jan. 27.
The commercial quotas for 2012 were cut by another 18 percent compared to last year. As the quotas decline, fishermen fear for their future and biologists are engaged in a high-stakes struggle to find the reasons behind persistent errors in the estimates of the size of the halibut stock going back to 2004.
If problems in the scientific model that have resulted in too many halibut being harvested cannot be resolved over the next year, an alternative strategy could be in play. The alternative strategy would have resulted in just 15.3 million pounds of commercial quota in 2012 compared to the 33.5 million pounds approved Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, Alaska still has no comprehensive plan to manage commercial and recreational halibut sectors and an observer program subject to manipulation by fishermen that results in poor estimates of halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is attempting to get a plan for commercial and charter halibut users in place for 2013, but it faces an uncertain future with the charter sector vehemently opposed to it.
In October 2010, the council passed a restructured observer program that is supposed to take effect in 2013, but without $3.8 million in federal start-up funding before April, it too, will be on the shelf next year.
Here's how current Alaska management compares to its peers:
* Trawl bycatch: Other than a 12.5 percent cut in the amount of bycatch allocated to the rockfish catch share program in 2010 -- amounting to about 60,000 pounds -- the North Pacific council hasn't taken an action to reduce halibut trawl bycatch since the limit of 4.4 million pounds was established in 1986.
Through the use of individual bycatch quotas, or IBQ, Canada has reduced its trawl bycatch by 70 percent off the coast of British Columbia. A plan passed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2010 using IBQ cut trawl halibut bycatch by more than half in the regulatory area from northern California to Washington.
* Observer coverage: Canada has 100 percent observer coverage on both halibut and trawl vessels. Alaska has 30 percent coverage on trawlers from 60 feet to 125 feet, and no observers on those less than 60 feet or on commercial halibut vessels.
Captains also choose when and where to carry observers, introducing great bias into whether bycatch estimates from the sampled catch actually reflects fleet behavior.
The restructured observer program passed by the North Pacific council eliminates these issues by expanding coverage to all commercial vessels and giving National Marine Fisheries Service control over when and where to deploy monitors based on annual recommendations from the council.
The program will eventually be funded by a 1.25 percent ex-vessel fee, but with observed vessels already paying a daily rate of about $486 under the current program, there is no way to generate start-up funding without help from NMFS. So far the Alaska Region has gotten no assurances it will receive the money it needs to start the program in 2013 as planned.
* Comprehensive management: The Pacific Northwest has a catch sharing plan that governs sport, commercial and tribal fisheries passed by the Pacific council. Canada also splits the harvest as a percentage with the recreational sector receiving no more than 12 percent and subject to in-season closures when approaching its allocation.
The catch sharing plan passed by the North Pacific council in 2008 -- which also would have divided the harvest as a percentage among commercial and charter sectors -- is still bogged down in the rule-making stage after the charter sector successfully campaigned against it last summer and forced a delay in implementation.
Going on 19 years since the North Pacific council formed the first charter workgroup to address issues between recreational and commercial sectors, the 2012 season will again take place under a hodge-podge of rules with commercial users allocated quota and charter operators under a guideline harvest level with no in-season management.
With the catch sharing plan on hold, the North Pacific council recommended a "reverse slot limit" for Southeast charter operators to replace the 37-inch rule that was in place in 2011.
Last year was the first time since the charter guideline harvest level was adopted in 2003 that the Southeast sector stayed within its allocation after going over by a cumulative 3.7 million pounds from 2004 to 2010.
The reverse slot limit would allow retention of one fish per day up to 45 inches or larger than 68 inches.
The reverse slot limit was ultimately adopted by the IPHC, but not before it was voted down 12-9 by the American delegation to the Conference Board. The Conference Board is an advisory group to the IPHC made up of stakeholders from both countries.
The commercial interests who voted down the reverse slot limit are concerned that increasing numbers of halibut will die as more and larger fish are subject to handling by anglers under the reverse slot limit.
The analysis behind the slot limit accounts for a large amount of "high grading" -- assuming the average weight for charter-caught fish will increase -- but does not account for additional discard mortality.
Bargaining over bycatch
As has often happened with the North Pacific council, it can take dire circumstances to force action. It took a public outrage over 120,000 chinook salmon taken as bycatch by the Bering Sea pollock fleets in 2007 for the council to pass control measures that took effect last year.
Similarly, the Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet took more than 50,000 chinook salmon in 2010, creating another firestorm amid declining returns around the state and spurring the council to fast-track the rule process. It passed a cap of 25,000 last June in Nome scheduled to take effect during the summer and fall seasons of 2012.
And now, just as Canadians have long protested Alaskans intercepting salmon stocks in Southeast, they are pointing to uncurbed and poorly accounted for halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska as costing them up to 1 million pounds in lost yield every year.
Currently on the table for the North Pacific council as it meets in Seattle are proposed cuts in halibut bycatch of 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent for both the trawl and longline sectors in the Gulf.
The annual reductions range from 217,000 pounds to 652,000 pounds for the trawl sector, and from 33,000 pounds to 99,000 pounds for the longline sector.
For halibut bycatch that has yet to grow to the legal size of 32 inches, IPHC staff estimate that each pound in bycatch saved would increase yield by 1.2 pounds and increase the critical female spawning biomass by 2.2 pounds.
Females continue to grow after reaching sexual maturity around age 11 while the male growth rate slows dramatically at age 8, accounting for the larger increase in female biomass.
IPHC staff believes the effects of Gulf bycatch have downstream effects on Canada and northern California, especially for those less than 6 years old that have more time to grow and migrate farther east.
Trawl representatives routinely refer to their halibut bycatch as largely being comprised of "ping pong paddle" sized halibut. IPHC analysis shows that 75 percent of trawl bycatch are halibut less than 26 inches.
The IPHC concludes that while trawl bycatch contributes to lost yield, the greatest losses to the biomass in recent years has been from exceeding the target harvest rate. The largest target harvest rate is 21.5 percent of the exploitable biomass, or the number of fish larger than 26 inches.
Overestimating the amount of those fish has led to actual harvest rates over the target every year since 2004, and as high as 32 percent in 2007.
The IPHC is trying to correct this "retrospective bias," and with some unknown mortality not accounted for in the model as one of the theories for the errors, the estimates of bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska stand out as one of the greatest sources of uncertainty.
This point was driven home often at the IPHC meeting by the Canadians, who traded their support for Gulf of Alaska harvest levels in exchange for British Columbia receiving an additional 405,000 pounds above the staff recommendation.
The Canadian delegation to the IPHC Conference Board made a motion that it would support the harvest allocated to British Columbia of 6.63 million pounds -- a 1 million pound cut from 2011 -- if the central Gulf of Alaska was designated an "area of concern" and held to a lower target harvest rate.
"Canada has addressed the issue of unsustainable, non-directed halibut mortalities that affect the coastwide biomass," the delegation stated in its motion. "Canada should not and must not be penalized for uncontrolled bycatch in other regulatory areas."
Using the lower harvest rate the Canadians suggested would have yielded a harvest of 6.9 million pounds in the central Gulf compared to the IPHC staff recommendation of 11.92 million pounds.
This motion was unanimously opposed by the American delegation, and an alternative motion introduced by the Canadians to give British Columbia 7.04 million pounds rather than the staff recommendation of 6.63 million pounds was passed by a 20-15 vote.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.