Halibut catches weren't slashed as much as people feared, although they still continue on a downward trend -- and the outlook is grim.
A coastwide catch of 31 million pounds was approved Friday by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a decline of 7.5 percent from last year and far better than a widely expected 30 percent cut. Alaska's share of the Pacific catch is 23 million pounds, down 2.5 million pounds.
The commissioners, three from the U.S. and three from Canada, each said the 2013 annual meeting last week was the toughest ever.
"I vote for the fish," said U.S. Commissioner Ralph Hoard at the close of the meeting. "Many questions remain about halibut bycatch and migration. While I am extremely sympathetic about the impacts on fishermen's economics, I am equally concerned about their future in this fishery. We don't want to end up like the East coast halibut fishery. There is none."
Along with setting catch limits and fishery dates, the commission addressed several regulatory proposals, none of which was approved.
A recommendation to make circle hooks the only legal gear was not adopted because of "regulatory difficulties." Circle hooks do less damage to the fish as they are hauled aboard.
"The commissioners are anxious at any possible time to reduce damage to fish and prevent needless mortality," said Commissioner Jim Balsiger, who also is director of NOAA Fisheries in Alaska. "So we are going to ask the IPHC staff to work on a public outreach mode, and to develop materials working with fishing groups to provide education on how circle hooks might be used more efficiently and more broadly through the industry. We have problems regulating it, so we are going to focus on that for the time being."
Halibut charter operators, who often remain out for a few days with clients, again proposed that frozen fish held on board not be counted as part of the possession limit. Balsiger said he agreed that the regulation does provide some hardship for that sector but added, "Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a way to deal with the enforcement issues, so we have asked staff to continue working on this."
The 800-pound gorilla in the room remains the millions of pounds of halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries. While halibut fleets have seen their catches cut by 70 percent over three years, and the sport sector is now limited to a single fish in Southeast Alaska and two in the central Gulf, the allowable bycatch limit tops 5 million pounds a year just in the Gulf of Alaska. (Bycatch limits are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, not the IPHC.)
Paul Ryall, a commissioner from Canada at his first meeting, pointed out that "bycatch mortality is the second largest source of removals coastwide, after the directed halibut fishery."
"At a time of low halibut abundance in the North Pacific, and at a time when the stock assessment warns of low recruitment coming at us, we do think bycatch mortality of all halibut, and in particular juvenile halibut, is critical," he said. "I urge all stakeholders to keep the pressure on their respective governments and management agencies to adopt the best practices and the newest technologies, and I know that we can bring bycatch mortality down substantially in the next few years."
The halibut managers outlined projects to be undertaken by a "bycatch project team." They include better understanding the effects of bycatch on the fishery and the resource, looking at options to reduce bycatch and exploring ways to mitigate the effects of bycatch. A report will be available this summer.
Bycatch aside, Commissioner Balsiger put the industry on notice that the outlook for future halibut fisheries is quite bleak.
The 2013 halibut fishery will run from March 22 through Nov. 7.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.