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Commercial halibut waste could bypass charter catch

Craig Medred

Data from the International Pacific Halibut Commission indicates charter halibut anglers fishing from ports in Cook Inlet and the northern Gulf of Alaska could wind up catching fewer of the big flatfish than are wasted in the commercial halibut fishery next year if a plan recommended by the National Marine Fisheries Service becomes law.

A so-called "catch-share plan" developed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is on the verge of being approved by the federal government. It would cut the halibut charter limit to a single fish per angler next season in what the commission calls Area 3A, an area that includes such popular Southcentral harbors as Seward, Homer and Valdez.

The limit is currently two fish. The two-fish limit led to a charter catch of just under 3 million pounds of halibut in 2010, according to the IPHC, a treaty organization that oversees halibut management for the U.S., Canada and Russia.

Charter boat businesses have cried foul, claiming a one-fish limit would put many of them out of business. Anglers, they argue, won't pay the cost of a charter trip for a single halibut. The charters have attacked the federal plan, arguing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would enforce the federal regulation, has made no attempt to either assess the economic fallout or to measure what role charters play in the decline of Alaska halibut stocks.

Last year, the Area 3A commercial longline fishery wasted 1.4 million pounds of halibut -- nearly half the amount charter boat anglers caught and took home to eat, according to IPHC figures. 

If the 50 percent cut in the charter limits leads to halving the total weight of the anglers' catch -- and commercial waste increases at about its typical rate -- halibut waste will top charter fishing as the second-leading cause of dead halibut in 3A.

The primary cause will remain the longline fishery, which caught about 20 million pounds last year.

It also wasted a lot. Last year’s 1.4 million pounds of waste in Area 3A is up more than 500 percent from the 393,000 pounds of waste recorded in 2000.

Most of these fish are thought to be halibut under 32 inches. International Pacific Halibut Commission rules require commercial fishermen to release such fish -- thought to have better survival prospects than bigger fish -- to help protect spawning stocks. An estimated 16 percent die anyway, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage study.

For years, commercial fishermen have fielded questions about a practice commonly called "high grading," or keeping only the most valuable fish and profiting on a premium price paid for larger fish. Most commercial fishermen claim not to do it.

In July, halibut fishermen were getting $6.40 per pound for 10-to-20-pound halibut landed in Seward, $6.80 for 20-to-40-pound fish, and $7.10 for 40-to-60-pounders. When tens of thousands of pounds of halibut are being caught, those small differences can add up to thousands of dollars.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission has suggested that high grading is a legitimate conservation concern, and has begun studying what it calls "prior-hook injuries" suffered by fish caught and tossed back.  

"While many fishers undoubtedly handle halibut bycatch with careful release, substantial improvements are unlikely without direct individual incentives," a 2008 commission study concludes. "The fisher education efforts made in the last decade seem to have only stabilized or reduced the rates of hooking injury. Continued progress … may require a more individualized accounting.

Still, the approximately 2.5 million pounds of wastage statewide in the commercial longline halibut fishery pales next to the number of dead halibut in trawl fisheries for pollock and other groundfish. The commission estimates that about 6.3 million of the 10.6 million pounds of halibut pulled up as bycatch in trawl fisheries is rolled back into the sea dead.

That, too, is all wasted.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com