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Commission: Pacific halibut by-catch a serious problem for Alaska fishery

Craig Medred

Alaska halibut fishermen of every sort could face fishing cuts this summer because "retrospective bias" compounded by "structural uncertainty" has led the "WobbleSQ assessment model" to adjust the "CEY" for the Pacific halibut fishery, the staff of the International Pacific Halibut Commission told a packed meeting room at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel on Tuesday.

The comments were almost enough to make reasonable fishermen wonder if a new species had invaded the North Pacific. Say hello to the dreaded "stifling bureaucratese."

Dozens of fishermen from the Lower 48, Canada and Alaska are now wrestling to understand this critter, though what is happening in the ocean is on one level really simple: there is a Pacific Coast-wide shortage of adult halibut, and IPHC staff is recommending a commercial halibut catch for the central Gulf of Alaska of about 12 million pounds, down more than 16 percent from last year's catch, which was down about 25 percent from 2010's catch limit of about 20 million pounds. That's a 40 percent drop in two years.

The central Gulf is a nursery ground for Pacific halibut and ground zero for the 49th state's largest commercial and sport halibut fisheries. As proposed by commission staff, the guideline harvest level for the sport charter fishery would also be slashed about 16 percent this summer. But that reduction -- if the commission accepts staff recommendations as it normally does -- is thought to be meaningless as the Alaska tourism business struggles to recover completely from a national recession.

The guideline harvest this year was 3.65 million pounds, but charter anglers caught only 2.8 million pounds, which was an increase over 2010 when they caught only 2.7 million. So a 16 percent cut in the guideline harvest is still more than the sport charter fishery actually landed last year.

Bid for one-fish limit not OK'd

Proposed halibut catch reductions in the central Gulf mirror proposed cuts for nearly all halibut fisheries from the U.S.-Canada border to the Bering Sea. The IPHC is a treaty organization that sets catch limits. The U.S. and Canadian governments retain the authority to decide who actually gets to catch the fish allotted to 11 IPHC zones from California north. Alaska just went through an ugly political tussle over such allocations when the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a commercial-fishing dominated organization that recommends management plans for U.S. waters, tried to stick it to charter operators by cutting the sport angler limit in half.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which usually endorses Council recommendations, balked at this one after charter-boat owners and their clients raised a stink. The North Pacific Council, they argued, had largely ignored the economic impacts of changes destined to affect hundreds of small businesses and ripple through small, Alaska coastal communities from Ketchikan around the Gulf Coast to Kodiak. Charter operators in Homer thought the Council owed everyone an explanation as to just how many were likely to go out of business if NOAA approved the plan to cut anglers aboard sport charters back to one fish.

U.S. Commerce Department officials in Washington, D.C. declined to approve the regulations and sent the whole plan back to the council, which is trying to figure out what to do next.

Commercial fishermen concede the "catch share plan" would have taken fish from charters and reallocated at least some of them back to commercial fishermen. But, they contend, that's only because the setup for the fisheries was unfair from the get-go.

The charter fisheries were given a fixed harvest level in 2003, while commercial fisheries have been working for more than two decades under a harvest level tied to the steadily shrinking number of halibut in the ocean. That's too bad, counter the charter operators, who note that when the halibut decline finally ends commercial catches are likely to go up as fast as they came down.

But when will it finally end? The lingering question for both groups is whether halibut will grow in size and number. As Sidney Swetzof from the Pribilof Islands told the IPHC Tuesday during a short question-and-answer period, "It's very disturbing to us."

Last year, Swetzof noted, the quota for the area around the Bering Sea islands increased slightly. This year it is expected to be down significantly, and there are indications the downward trend could continue for years.

"It's very, very frightening," Swetzof said. He wanted assurances from Bruce Leaman, IPHC chief scientist, that things would get better in 2013. Leaman couldn't offer much encouragement. Things could be worse in 2013, he admitted, noting problems with "unspecified mortality."

All of which brings this back to "retrospective bias," "structural uncertainty," the "WobbleSQ assessment model," and the "CEY."

Interpreting jargon

The International Pacific Halibut Commission suffers from an overload of jargon and hard-to-decipher acronyms. It is not what one would call a "user-friendly" organization. Former state Sen. Sam Cotton, now a member of the North Pacific Council, and former Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, both heard part of the Council presentation and admitted they struggled to follow the presentations.

• "Retrospective bias" is basically a confession that past guesstimates didn't pan out.

• "Structural uncertainty" is an admission that fish in the ocean are hard to count.  

• The "WobbleSQ assessment model'' is a description of the last scheme to try to deal with all these things.

• "CEY'' is the "constant exploitation yield" or the number of fish that can be caught season after season without driving the halibut population into decline.

While these terms help determine how many halibut fishermen will be allowed to catch next year, they've got little to do with the more important issue confronting the halibut fishery -- that "unspecified mortality" Leaman mentioned.

Young halibut seem to be disappearing before they reach spawning age. There are tens of millions of these fish -- the vast majority of halibut -- in the North Pacific. But they are growing slower than in the past and too few make it to spawning age, which has led to a problem.

The fish humans kill -- what the IPHC calls "exploitable biomass" -- has been going down even as models say it should be rising. The models, scientist Juan Valero wrote in one of the commission's many lengthy reports, "estimate increasing trends in total halibut numbers and total biomass in spite of a declining trend in exploitable biomass."

The commission's reports are available here for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the subject. And knock yourself out. The public meeting doesn't add much. It basically involves the staff reading or using PowerPoint to describe what has already been written. A presentation on the pros and cons of reducing the 32-inch size limit for commercially caught salmon went on and on and never addressed the real problem: if the size limit is reduced, the number of fish eligible to be caught will increase, and the catch-quota will go up. But commercial fishermen are unlikely to change what they catch, because halibut processors don't pay as much for little fish as for big fish. Thus, reducing the size limit would increase the poundage of fish being caught, but most of them would still be fish of at least 32 inches. And catching more fish over 32 inches -- instead of less -- would compound overfishing, another problem of the moment.

Trawlers, environment play roles

Who or what is causing that problem? Well, the environment plays a role.

Slower growth rates for today's halibut indicate that either food is scarce  or halibut are losing out to other fish -- Pollock, arrowtooth flounder, salmon and more -- with which they share prey. Arrowtooth, a fish basically inedible for humans, is now the largest biomass in the Gulf after decades of U.S. federal government management of the fishery there.

Trawlers are big-money players in the federal fishery. They basically strip-mine the ocean for Pollock, which support a billion-dollar industry. Unfortunately, the trawlers catch other fish. They caught significantly more than 10 million pounds of halibut last year, much more than the sport-caught total. But that by-catch was a decrease from the year before, in 2010. Trawlers are not allowed to keep the halibut by-catch for fear that if permitted, they would soon start targeting the highly valuable flat fish. So they are required to dump the halibut back in the ocean.

But there's a problem with measuring this so-called by-catch in pounds: A single, 100-pound halibut tossed back dead equals 10 halibut that weigh 10 pounds apiece. And given IPHC studies showing that the halibut population these days is overrun with small fish, it is likely the trawlers are catching less weight but killing more fish.

A longtime commercial, hook-and-line fisherman who pointed this out to the Halibut Commission drew loud cheers from a crowd that had seemed near comatose during some of the scientific presentations. 

"We have a real problem, and the problem is by-catch," he said. "It's time that the commission take a stand. The (North Pacific) Council is run by the draggers. This is nuts. The commission has to take action."

Leaman, the IPHC scientist, conceded by-catch could be a problem. But the commission, he noted, can only make management recommendations to the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Even if the IPHC were to say by-catch needs to end, Leaman said, "that has to be accepted by the parent governments."

Leaman suggested more research is in order, but admitted that in the interim it wouldn't hurt if there were stronger incentives to encourage trawlers to avoid large by-catches of halibut. They now on occasion drag up nets containing almost as many illegal halibut as legal fish of other species.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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