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Halibut catch limits could be cut

Posted: December 8, 2012 - 9:25pm  |  Updated: December 8, 2012 - 9:37pm

Despite changes to the stock assessment model and a new format for harvest advice, the news the International Pacific Halibut Commission heard from staff at its interim meeting was the same as it has been since 2005: the number of harvestable halibut has declined, and catch limits are following suit.

Under the most likely scenario, the coastwide harvest from California to the Bering Sea would be 22.7 million pounds, down from a 33.54 million pound catch limit in 2012.

That limit is less certain than in prior years, as the commission, or IPHC, changed how staff harvest advice was delivered. The new format provides a range of possible harvests, along with potential effects of each harvest size. No decisions were made at the interim meeting, as catch limits will be set at the January annual meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, Jan. 25.

The 22.7 million pound limit is the number that most closely matches last year’s harvest strategy.

The potential 2013 cut comes after a sizable cut from 2011, when the limit was 41 million pounds, to 2012, when it was 33 million. The 22.7 million pound limit would be a 33 percent decrease.

The 22.7 million pound limit is paired with a likely total removal from the fishery of 40.2 million pounds of halibut, due to bycatch and other mortality.

Alaska’s portion of the 22.7 million pound limit would be 17.41 million pounds, down from 25.5 million in 2012. That number includes an increase in the harvest forecasted for Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, because the model showed an increase in exploitable biomass for the area. Southcentral, or Area 3A, is in line for another cut, possibly to less than 10 million pounds compared to nearly 12 million pounds in 2012. Such a reduction could lead to cuts in bag limits for charter anglers to something less than the current two fish of any size limit.

The harvest numbers were coupled with advice about potential impacts of each option.

At the 22.7 million level, Chief Assessment Scientist Ian Stewart said there is an 82 percent chance that the 2014 spawning biomass will decrease compared to 2013, and a 48 percent chance of a reduced target amount to exploit in 2014. But the 2014 decrease would likely be relatively small; there’s just a 3 percent chance that the spawning biomass would decrease by 5 percent.

Higher and lower harvests lead to different probabilities of the various outcomes, but every option — including no harvest at all — has at least a 95 percent chance that the 2016 spawning biomass will be smaller than it is in 2013.

That’s because other factors are at play beyond just fisheries removals in the coming years. There’s a new model calculating — more accurately, IPHC scientists think — the size of the stock, and uncertainty over recruitment.

Stewart, the IPHC’s new modeler hired over the summer, said biomass actually increased slightly compared to prior years because older fish are growing, but there’s not a strong signal for halibut just entering the fishery.

“What we see, is a period starting in 2001 onward…of below average recruitment,” Stewart said.

Now, the fishery is seeing the effects of that, as it takes 10 or 11 years for the fish to mature and move through the fishery, Stewart said.

“The legacy of these poor recruitments is going to continue to be there,” he said.

For now, decreased size-at-age is also impacting the total exploitable biomass. What happens to that trend in the future is difficult to predict, Stewart said.

He also cautioned that looking beyond a few years out is difficult, in part because of all the unknowns involved in the fishery.

Stewart explained that he removed retroactive bias from the model, making the numbers more accurate, but also meaning that the whole fishery looks a bit smaller than it did in the past.

When the commission meets in January, it will be tasked with setting halibut catch limits, either at the level that reflects the past harvest level, or by changing the harvest strategy and choosing a different number. The commissioners will also have the ability to look at how the harvest is apportioned between the ten regulatory areas.

Steve Martell, another new scientist at the IPHC, also talked about an ongoing review of the commission’s halibut harvest rate policy. Because the work is ongoing, he didn’t recommend any specific changes, but he also declined to support the current policy.

That review links to another effort that will come up at the January meeting, which is the creation of a Management Strategy Advisory Board.

That body would develop a process to evaluate alternative management procedures for the Pacific halibut fishery, Martell said.

The board would be comprised of harvesters, managers, processors, IPHC staff, scientists, and others, totaling about 15 to 20 people. It could look at catch rate targets, provide technical advice on model components, determine the level of risk the commission wants to allow in its harvest strategy and compare management procedures.

Essentially, it would help keep the model grounded in reality and provide another check for the commission’s management.

“I think what’s very important is to have outsiders looking (in on) our process,” Martell said.

The new board would meet for the first time in 2013, with a goal of presenting to the commission at the 2014 annual meeting.

Those changes weren’t the only ones the commission heard about. The new format for staff harvest advice was part of a move toward risk-based assessments. But the commission is also making a shift toward more transparency in its decisions and processes. As part of that effort, the entire interim meeting other than an administrative executive session, was webcast. Come January, the annual meeting will also be webcast — and the public will be able to attend more sessions than in the past, including the commission deliberations over harvest limits that have been closed to the public. The annual meeting is schedule for Jan. 21 to Jan. 25.

Those are just some of the results of a performance review completed in this past April regarding the IPHC’s processes. IPHC Executive Director Bruce Leaman talked to the commission about some efforts to incorporate the review’s suggestions, such as the transparency moves. The commission will revisit those and other suggestions in the future.

Despite all the efforts to improve modeling and management, IPHC staff said one of the biggest needs is a better understanding of the fishery. To that aim, they also presented a five-year research plan.

Leaman said staff is working on the five-year plan, which would be updated regularly and act as a guide to the annual plan. The plan would focus on stock assessment and identification, management strategies, biology and ecology, and prioritize projects. Included are tagging efforts, and ongoing trawl surveys to monitor juvenile abundance.

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BigRedDog 12/11/12 - 06:13 am
Bycatch is Wantant Waste!

Calling bycatch anything but the wantant waste it really is, hides the real problem it creates. All I've heard over the years about bycatch when fishing for another targeted species is, "Ohe we return those to the sea" , yes and most of them are dead or dying, but totally wasted!! All the evidence points to the waste of trolling tons of fish of the bottum and picking a few out and tossing the rest back, this type of fishing has devastated every fishery where it's use is allowed.
The main problem is the targeted fish harvest, trolling is a poor way to target! It's like shooting into a huge flock of mixed fish with a shotgun, and ohe so we hit a few extra? Then somebody adds up the extra and it is MORE flipping fish than all the sportsmen in Alaska catch each year! That is a problem! For the NPHC or any organization to say it's cool does not fly with ME! We are talking a limited resource and you are sanctioning the wantant waste or millions of pounds of a precious resource as a management tool! Any fish harvested from the bottum of the sea should not be wasted!!
We have all heard the poor excuse of not being equipped to handle different species of fish while out cod fishing, well that is just to bad! You catch hundreds of yellow eye, snappers, halibut, kings and who knows what else, then just throw them back dead or dying; that is waste!
So let's hear the sad story again of how or why you can't keep all harvested fish when trolling? Com'on Man!! We can do better and should at least look at the East Coast, they shut them trollers down!! Why you might ask? Because it kills the fishery, every fishery associated in the area suffers when trolling is allowed!! Just how stupid is it to continue a program that has shown these results and assume it will be differrent hear? Well we all know what happens when we spell assume we make an ass of u then make an ass of NOT ME this time!

Unglued 12/11/12 - 11:06 am
trawling, not trolling

I completely agree about the wastefulness of bycatch, BigRedDog. But I think you're referring to trawling, not trolling, which is hook and line fishing. Some people don't know what either one is, and when someone says trolling when they mean trawling, it only adds to the confusion.

Watchman on the Wall
Watchman on the Wall 12/11/12 - 11:54 am
average size is 12 lbs

When one spends massive money for charter or personal boats and only get 2 12 lb halibut on the average then make no mistake folks it's about to be shut down.
We have allowed our big breeder halibut to be persued in contests for money and have actually brought this on our selves. We have allowed big fish that actually produce babies to vanish to the point of no return just as the King salmon and moose have been done.
This year i was checked 2 times by F&G in homer and it's all due to the lack of fish and the illegal keeping of too many fish by many sport fishers thats caused this. I HAVE NEVER, THATS NEVER BEEN CHECKED BEFORE IN 35+ YRS TILL THIS YEAR.
We reap what we sow and the Caribou, Moose, Salmon and Halibut shortages are showing a massive abuse system by the people & regulated by Govt. and it's gonna get worse real soon i fear, then what?

spybot 12/11/12 - 03:41 pm
Big Breeder fish

The recreational fisheries in Alaska harvest less than ten percent of all halibut harvested in the state - the other ninety percent are harvested in commercial fisheries as directed harvest by IFQ holders or indirectly as bycatch.

It is quite a stretch to claim that harvests in Cook Inlet or elsewhere in the North Pacific by recreational anglers are the primary reason for the decline in halibut size and abundance.

Yes - there was a halibut derby that was centered around prizes for the largest fish harvested - the Homer Chamber restructured its derby so that is no longer the case. Do you really think the Halibut Derby is the cause of the declining halibut stocks across the whole Gulf of Alaska?

Commercial processors pay more for larger sized halibut - do you think that is a valid concern for the stock decline? Think that price differential is going to change anytime soon?

Claiming a massive abuse system by recreational anglers is way off target and not productive, as are claims that it is all the fault of commercial trawl fisheries.

Catch limits are based on stock assessments, harvests, fishery models and other such inputs. By its very nature it is subject with complexity. Simplified ideas on complex subjects rarely yield relevant solutions to the issues at hand.

Watchman on the Wall
Watchman on the Wall 12/11/12 - 03:57 pm
Many reasons

There are many reasons as you pointed out. No i'm not blaming the sport fishing or all the derbys state wide for the depletion of halibut. But the quest for giant halibut is and was a major problem. Take the King salmon as well as trophy moose desired by many and the commercialization for people to come to Alaska and get those trophies and one can see a helping hand in the depleation of each species.
I don't know what the real cause is, nor do i have all the answers,(i have some ideas but many don't believe in Him) but we are in some real troubles with Caribou, Moose, Salmon and Halibut here in Alaska are we not?
I don't even have all the questions yet about this problem we are all involved with here as FULL TIME RESIDENTS.
Have a GR8 Day!!

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