Commission cuts halibut limits across Alaska, Canada

Halibut fishermen across Alaska will see big cuts in their catch limits this year after significant drops in survey numbers across the coast in 2022.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission adopted its annual catch limits for halibut in 2023 from California to the Bering Sea at its meeting Jan. 27. Coastwide, the total constant exploitation yield — a term for how many total halibut longer than 26 inches are removed from the population, regardless of reason — is just shy of 37 million pounds, a 10% drop from 41.2 million pounds last year.

Every regulatory area received a cut except for 2A, which covers California, Oregon and Washington. Area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, and area 4A, which covers the eastern Aleutians, saw the largest cuts at 17% each. Southeast Alaska only saw a 1% cut, while the western Gulf, western Aleutians and central Bering Sea each saw 6% cuts. The Canadian coast saw a 10.3% cut.

The reductions come in response to lower surveys, where all coastwide indices were “down strongly in 2022,” according to a report presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The 2022 fishery saw the lowest participation and efficiency in three decades, with poor recruitment numbers in the population affecting the overall survey.

No one really knows for sure why the Pacific halibut stock is declining. Scientists have linked current trends to poor recruitment — fewer young fish are surviving to join the adult population and breed. The stock is “at an unprecedented low population level due to recent poor recruitment,” according to the IPHC’s report to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Scientists report that only about 30% of the current dominant year class, the fish born in 2012, are mature.

Ian Steward, the IPHC researcher who oversees the stock assessment, told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that the decline seen in the survey is likely due to a gap between the previous strong age class and the next one.

“This is largely being driven by a transition,” he said. “We’re seeing a jump from a strong 2005 year class … to the next year class in line being the 2012 year class. And this transition, as you can tell the fish being much younger, led to quite a drop in catch rates in 2022. We began to see this a few years ago, and the largest part of the transition occurred the last year in 2022 in the fisheries.”

The current recommended fishing level is a fairly conservative, safe one for the stock, Stewart said, adding that there is some hope for the future as the size-at-age for halibut is trending upward and the new age class comes in.

“This is good news, though (the increasing size-at-age) is a trend that is likely to take decades (to affect) yields coming out of the fishery,” he said.

Jon Kurland, the lead commissioner for the U.S. delegation to the IPHC, said the commissioners kept long-term declines in mind as they worked on this agreement for 2023. Stakeholders from the central Gulf of Alaska and the eastern Aleutians came to the commission willing to take a 15% cut, which was surprising, he said. In the end, the commissioners decided on a 17% cut in response to those significant survey declines.

“As the head of the U.S. delegation, I’m quite concerned about what the dashboard is showing us,” Kurland said. “I was really encouraged by the level of attention that so many stakeholders from both the U.S. and Canada were paying to those indicators and the shared sense that we need to be cautious with our approach.”

The overall cut to the total constant exploitation yield was about 10.3% down from last year — an exact match to what Canada’s area of coastline will see. However, Canada’s region saw an 11% decline in the halibut population, according to survey data presented to the IPHC. The central Gulf of Alaska is the same: The survey notes a 37% decline in that area, but the IPHC only passed a 17% cut in its total constant exploitation yield. By contrast, Southeast Alaska’s 1% cut matches with what was seen in the survey.

Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, noted that most of the cuts were directly related to the reductions in weight per unit of effort in the various regions. It was the same situation in the central Gulf of Alaska last year, but the opposite result — the weight per unit of effort tracked up a little, so the fishermen there had a small increase last year.

Stakeholders in the halibut fishery are aware of the science backing these reductions and have shown support for it, she said.

“Halibut stakeholders have a history of being conservative and try to reach a consensus on the U.S. side before going into discussions with Canada,” she said.

Though the IPHC historically allows the U.S. and Canada to reach multi-year agreements, this is only a one-year interim agreement. The two delegations will have to renegotiate in 2024.

The halibut season is set to open in March and run through early December.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

02/17/2023 - 3:09pm