Longer halibut season nixed

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

A 10.5-month halibut fishing season would be easier to implement than a year-round season, according to a study presented Tuesday at the International Pacific Halibut Commission's annual meeting.

The joint U.S.-Canadian commission, which sets the rules and quotas for commercial halibut fishing in the Northwest, is meeting at Centennial Hall in Juneau this week.

The report was the commission's response to a fishing industry request to look into a longer season. Currently the halibut commission sets new season dates each year, but the season generally runs about eight months, said the commission's Heather Gilroy.

"For many years, the industry has been interested in a longer season because of the move to halibut aquaculture," Gilroy said.

Halibut farming is a small industry right now, said Norm Pillen of the Seafood Producers Cooperative in Sitka.

"It's out there, but right now it's been really cost-prohibitive," Pillen said.

Still, halibut fishers who are worried their business could take a nosedive if farming becomes more widespread point to the state's struggling wild salmon industry, which traces its problems to salmon farms. Pillen said a longer season could stem the growth of halibut farming.

"The more time we have to move fresh fish, the better for the industry. Better prices, better quality and more opportunity for our fishermen," he said.

Though Pillen favors a year-round season, he said he doubts the halibut industry will ever get there because it would require extensive changes to procedural and administrative processes that regulate the industry. He said the 10.5-month season still would be a welcome change.

In her report to the commission Tuesday, Gilroy noted the 10.5-month season is more practical logistically than a 12-month season. She said Canadian fishers were worried about the effects of migration during the extended season. During the winter, when there usually is no halibut fishing, some of the fish migrate south from Alaska to British Columbia. If the season is extended those fish, normally caught in British Columbia, would be caught earlier in Alaska.

Gilroy also said the committee that looked into the season-length issue discussed other options, such as opening different areas at different times, or allowing fishers to keep halibut they unintentionally caught during the off-season.

Phil Smith of the National Marine Fisheries Service said the U.S. agency isn't opposed to changing the regulations that govern the season.

"If the industry wants this to happen ... we'll be glad to do it to accommodate that. But it's not something we can just decide to do and do next year," Smith said.

Jim Balsiger, one of the IPHC U.S. commissioners, said commissioners have not received a proposal to alter the season.

"We have a recommendation to start looking at dates," he said.

The commission's meeting continues through Friday, when commissioners will announce regulatory decisions for the upcoming season. Commission staff has recommended the season run March 15 to Nov. 15 this year.

Masha Herbst is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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