Lower catches for Pacific halibut are in the forecast for the foreseeable future.
That was the message from the International Pacific Halibut Commission at its November meeting in Seattle. The commission oversees halibut stock research and sets catch limits for nine fishing regions ranging from northern California to British Columbia to the Bering Sea.
There are fewer of the prized flatfish (down 4 percent), they weigh less (down 5 percent) and no big pulses appear to be coming into the stock, according to the grim summary of the 2019 halibut fishery. The assessment included the results of summer-long surveys at nearly 1,370 fishing stations, including 89 added to the Central Gulf of Alaska, the biggest halibut fishing hole.
The numbers of spawning halibut also appeared to continue their decline over the past year, said the commission's lead scientist Ian Stewart.
The commission calculates the amount of removals of halibut over 26 inches for commercial, recreational, sports charter, subsistence and bycatch in other fisheries, called a total constant exploitation yield. For 2019, the coastwide TCEY was 38.61 million pounds. The decline was projected, Stewart said.
“This has been predicted for several years. This is projected to continue for all 2020 [Total Constant Exploitation Yields] greater than approximately 18.4 million pounds,” Stewart said. “It’s essentially the breakeven point over the next three years. So, we’re looking at a period of relatively low productivity for the Pacific halibut stock over the next three years.”
Stewart added that more female fish are showing up in the stock and lower halibut yields will be necessary to “reduce higher fishing intensity.”
“The primary driver behind that has been the addition of new information about the sex ratio of the commercial fishery catch that has indicated that we’ve probably been fishing this stock harder than we thought, historically,” he said.
Fishing the stock harder includes the halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries.
“The nondirected discards, meaning bycatch, was up from a little over 6 million pounds to a little over 6.4 million pounds,” Stewart said.
In the Bering Sea, for example, there is a fixed cap totaling 7.73 million pounds of halibut allowed to be taken as bycatch for trawlers, longliners and pot boats targeting other fish, with most going to trawlers. The cap stays the same, regardless of changes in the halibut stock.
This year, after four years of analysis and deliberation, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council began moving toward a new “abundance based” management plan that would tie bycatch levels to the health of the halibut stock as determined by annual surveys. (Prior to that, the issue had not been discussed for 20 years.)
Meanwhile, bycatch allowances, combined with new rules in setting halibut catch limits, could mean Bering Sea communities get squeezed out of the upcoming fishery.
“Last year the IPHC agreed to two allocation decisions that this year may hamstring efforts to provide enough halibut for Area 4CDE (the central Bering Sea) to even go fishing,” said Peggy Parker, director of the Halibut Association of North America.
“The first decision was to provide a fixed minimum of 1.65 million pounds to Area 2A (Washington, Oregon and California). The second was a formula for the Canadian allocation that was designed to mitigate their current and future losses from the trawl bycatch in the Bering Sea. That bycatch increased this year, which threw last year’s projections off and will likely result in lower catches to that area next year,” Parker added. “Having fixed minimum allocations to Area 2A and 2B (B.C.) will increase the difficulty in providing enough halibut to merit a fishery, in the eyes of quota holders, next year. It is a zero-sum game in the midst of a declining stock where Alaska becomes the only place with wiggle room.”
It’s déjà vu for Jeff Kauffman of St. Paul, Alaska, where emergency measures were implemented in 2015 to enable a halibut fishery to open in the region and fishermen’s catch limits were slashed to a half million pounds.
“There has been a de facto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries,” he said at the time. “Conservation of the stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen.”
The North Pacific council was expected to set halibut bycatch limits for 2020 during its Dec. 2-10 meeting in Anchorage. The commission will reveal the catch limits for the halibut fishery during its annual meeting Feb. 3-7, also in Anchorage.
The Pacific halibut fishery ended on Nov. 14 amid little fanfare. Most dock prices ticked up during the eight-month fishery, hovering in the $5- to $6-per pound range, likely a result of bad weather hampering landings of competing halibut from Canada.
“Their hurricanes and everything may have disrupted some of the fisheries there and allowed some of the product from Alaska to make it into those higher end East Coast markets. So we got a little better price,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
Better dock prices have not boosted the market for halibut quota shares, which are down by a third or more from sky-high levels two years ago and appear to have stabilized. Shares in Southeast, for example, that topped $70 per pound are now in the $55 range or less. In the Central Gulf, halibut IFQs are at around $45 a pound.
“For the last 15 years or so the resource has been in general decline. There have been some minor increases over the years, but mostly the trend has been downward,” Bowen said. “I think folks are kind of tired of buying something that gets cut the next year and is worth less. They're buying an asset that's declining in value. Many times over the last few years folks have thought that this must be the bottom and it would be a great time to buy — get in and ride it back up, and that hasn't happened.”