US, Canada disagree on distribution of declining halibut catch

As expected, catches of Pacific halibut will decrease for this year, and likely into the foreseeable future.

Following an increase in catches last year for the first time in several decades, the International Pacific Halibut Commission set a suggested coastwide catch for 2018 at 28.03 million pounds, a 10.7 percent reduction, last Friday. Alaska’s share could be 20.52 million pounds, a drop of 2.1 million pounds from 2017.

The numbers could decline further, and the six commissioners were not able to agree on catch allocations for the eight halibut fishing regions.

Halibut catch limits are determined by summer surveys at more than 1,200 stations from Oregon to the Aleutians.

“There was agreement that the general halibut stock is in decline, but no consensus on what the catches should be. Due to this impasse, the commissioners made suggestions for 2018 for their own countries,” said Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Juneau-based Halibut Coalition.

“The Canadians’ main issue on harvest reduction is that they do not agree with the U.S. on the distribution of the stocks. However, all agreed that stocks are down and that reductions are needed,” Gemmell added in email posts from the Oregon meeting.

“The bottom line is both parties agreed on what we needed to do in terms of reductions, but couldn’t agree on how to get it done,” said commission Chairman Jim Balsiger. “That’s an awkward place to be, but I don’t believe for a second that any of the commissioners did anything other than what they thought was best and what they were required to do by their own ideals as we try to get to a solution.”

The impasse means each country will set its own catch guidelines within recommended limits.

“The need to adopt quotas outside the IPHC process may result in a delay to the March 24 opening date,” cautioned Gemmell. The U.S. halibut fishery will close on Nov. 7.

By all accounts, the five-day meeting was “spirited but agreeable.”

“The U.S. and Canada are good friends and neighbors, and we do not consider the result a failure,” said attendee Bruce Gabrys in closing remarks that met with sustained applause. “Principled people sometimes disagree. I do not see our relations changing irrespective of what path the IPHC takes as we move forward. We thank the commissioners for their efforts.”

Total halibut removals in 2017 were 42.8 million pounds, up slightly from 2016. Of that, an estimated 26.6 million pounds were landed from commercial fisheries, 7.9 million pounds from recreational fisheries, 6 million pounds from bycatch, and 1.2 million pounds from subsistence.

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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