Council approves tighter halibut charter rules for 2020
A tough season may be ahead for the halibut charter fleet in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska as managers look to reduce the overall catch of Pacific halibut.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for regulations on the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A, covering Southeast and Southcentral respectively, at its meeting last week. Both include tighter restrictions than in previous years and ratchet down as the recreational catch allocation goes down.
In Southeast Alaska, the recommended highest-tier catch limit ranges between 772,000 to just more than 1 million pounds and would allow for an upper size limit of longer than 80 inches and a lower limit of less than 40.
If the catch limit goes down to between 658,000 and 771,000 pounds, the council’s recommendations keep the same size limits but begin closing Wednesdays, starting at the end of the season and working backward with a maximum of all Wednesdays in the season being closed.
Lower than that, the council recommends a closure of a minimum of 14 Wednesdays and an annual limit of four halibut for all charter anglers, then an annual limit of three halibut, with a complete closure of Wednesdays and an annual limit of three halibut if the catch limit is set at less than 615,000 pounds.
In Southcentral, the council took a similar tiered approach. The allocation levels are larger in general in Southcentral, but so is participation. Regardless of the allocation, the recommendations include an annual limit of four halibut per charter angler, closed Wednesdays, one trip per halibut charter vessel per day, and one trip per permit per day.
If the allocation is between about 1.7 million and 2 million pounds, the daily bag limit would be set at two halibut, with one fish of any size and the other smaller than 26 inches, with some Tuesdays closed.
At an allocation of between 1.588 million and 1.695 million pounds, the bag and size limits would be the same, but all Tuesdays would close and some Thursdays would close until the allocation is achieved. Below that, all Tuesdays would be closed with a daily bag limit of one halibut and a reverse slot limit, with an upper limit of 80 inches and a lower limit beginning at 58 inches.
In particular, charter operators in Southcentral came out to comment in opposition to the recommendations. Many told the council that the additional restrictions would further reduce the viability of their fishery.
“Alarms are sounding regarding the proposals regarding 3A as they will certain economic damage across our small community,” wrote Whittier City Manager Jim Hunt to the council.
“The management of the halibut resource is critical and we in Whittier believe it would be much more effective to address the over/under rule for male fish and more importantly, narrow the aperture and focus on the fact that most commercial bycatch halibut are breeding females.”
Many of the commenters asked the council to redirect its efforts toward reducing the bycatch in the commercial trawl fisheries in the North Pacific. The total non-directed discard mortality for area 3A came in at approximately 1.6 million pounds, according to a 2019 fisheries statistics report presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
For the entirety of Area 3, which includes Area 3B in the Western Gulf, that total comes to about 2.1 million pounds. The vast majority of that is in the commercial trawl fishery, with hook-and-line fisheries “a distant second,” according to the report.
“IPHC Regulatory Area 3 remains the area where non-directed commercial discard mortality is estimated most poorly,” the report states. “Observer coverage for most fisheries is relatively low.”
Many of the concerned charter captains come from Homer, where a major chunk of the economy rests on tourism. As halibut biomass has continued to decline, regulations have continued to tighten, and the institution of a catch-share plan splitting the area allocation between the commercial and recreational fishery has put pressure on the charter sector, reducing the reliability of the recreational fishing opportunity for tourists.
The Homer Chamber of Commerce asked the council to take more comprehensive action to control bycatch in the commercial trawl fishery, instituting full observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the same way it is in the Bering Sea fishery.
“When the Longline and Charter Fleets experience further restrictions, regulations need to reflect the Trawl Fleet in the Gulf of Alaska being held to the same standardized methods and restrictions,” the organization wrote. “We believe that by instituting 100 percent observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the fishery will reduce bycatch to a more sustainable level for our industry fisherman here.”
The council’s recommendations go to the International Pacific Halibut Commission just in time for its meeting, which began Feb. 3 in Anchorage. The commission will set the annual catch limits for halibut in the U.S. and Canada fisheries, with reductions expected across the board due to declining available biomass for harvest. Recent surveys have shown a continuation of a long-term decline, with some potential for increases in future year classes but a short-term decline.
One of the council’s main concerns is the inclusion of bycatch of fish smaller than 26 inches in the calculation of the Total Constant Exploitation Yield limit, or TCEY, which the IPHC has voted to do. The new procedure will likely increase allocation to Canada and, in combination with decreased biomass, impact Alaska halibut fisheries, according to a Dec. 31 letter from the council to the IPHC.
“The Area 3A adopted TCEY was up 8 percent in 2019 from the prior year, and in 2020 the TCEY could drop by 28 percent from 2019 levels while Area 4CDE could drop 20 percent from 2019 levels if set at the reference TCEY levels,” the letter states. “Interannual changes of this magnitude, which the Council notes are very unusual for long-lived groundfish species, pose significant challenges to commercial and recreational directed users of the halibut resource.”
The council asked the IPHC to consider delaying the inclusion of U26 fish bycatch in the TCEY, among other actions, to reduce the year-to-year swings.
The IPHC meeting continues through Feb. 7 in Anchorage.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].