The Pacific halibut stock appears to have stabilized, but that isn’t likely to equate to higher catches in 2017.

That was a take home message last week when  International Pacific Halibut Commission staff unveiled summer survey results showing that the overall stock abundance declined a bit, and the bulk of the fish remain small for their ages.

But the fact that halibut removals have remained relatively stable over three years is encouraging news for a stock that was on a downward trend for nearly two decades.  

IPHC biologist Ian Stewart described the Pacific halibut fishery as being “fully subscribed” among diverse users. 

“Today across the entire coast, 60 percent of the removals from the halibut stock are coming from directed fishery landings, about 17 percent are coming from both recreation and from mortality due to bycatch in non-halibut fisheries, and about three percent each are coming from wastage and personal use and subsistence,” Stewart said. 

Another survey finding -  notable drops in halibut bycatch across all regions.

“We’ve seen a substantial reduction in bycatch from almost nine million pounds in 2014 to about seven million pounds in 2016,” he said.

That is little comfort to halibut fishermen who could see a 12.6 percent coastwide (US/Canada) drop in catches next year, from 29.89 million pounds to 26.13 million pounds.    

For Southeast Alaska, the catch could decrease by 17.4 percent to 3.24 million pounds. For the Central Gulf, a 0.8 percent drop to 7.28 million pounds is projected

The Western Gulf could see a 17.4 percent increase just over three million pounds. Catch estimates for Bering Sea halibut fishing regions show a 1.8% increase, according to data from the Juneau-based Halibut Coalition. 

Stewart stressed that the preliminary catch estimates are not recommendations, but show outcomes based on scientific rolls of the dice.

“We produce the entire decision table which is a risk analysis, and it’s up to the commissioners to do risk management and make the appropriate decisions,” Stewart said.

The halibut commission was expected to make final decisions at its annual meeting Jan. 23-27 in Victoria, British Columbia. Comments and proposals on 2017 catch limits were accepted through December 3. The halibut fishery will reopen in March. 

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