With a dire assessment of North Pacific halibut stocks in hand, the International Pacific Halibut Commission wrapped up its interim meeting in Seattle with catch quotas for 2012 still hanging in limbo. Allocations of the prized flatfish undoubtedly will be forced lower next year. How low is the big question.
In this there is nothing but bad news for commercial fishermen and charter boat anglers already warring over Alaska halibut. The commission's chief scientist, Steven Hare, said the harvest model the commission has used to set catches in the past would suggest a U.S. Pacific coastwide harvest cut of nearly 20 percent: from some 41 million pounds this year to 33 million pounds in 2012. But, he added, commission biologists have grown uncomfortable with the model because season after season the numbers of dead fish don't add up correctly.
Thus he suggested the commission consider a new model factoring in corrections for what he called, in the best of bureaucratic style, "retrospective mis-estimations." The new model suggests staggering cuts of 63 percent in the halibut fisheries to a mere 15 million pounds next year. That would be a gash in a fishery that's already been slashed more than half since 2001. And the implications of such a cut are huge -- not only for fishermen of all sorts, but for small coastal communities from British Columbia north through Alaska, and for consumers.
Because of limited supply, halibut has already priced itself into the luxury food category. The Seattle Fish Co. has a fresh fillet going for $21.99 online at the moment. That is, by way of comparison, close to the same price per pound as a T-bone ordered from "Omaha Steaks," a national marketer of gourmet meats.
Beef prices are expected to remain stable because of stable supply. Who knows how high prices for a halibut fillet might go if the catch is slashed 63 percent -- or even 20 percent? What the commission -- a treaty organization that sets catches for both the U.S. and Canadian coasts -- will do remains unknown. During the publicly broadcast portion of the IPHC meeting on Wednesday, commissioners quizzed Hare about a supposedly huge bounty of Pacific halibut now struggling toward maturity.
Scientists say the overall biomass of halibut in the north Pacific -- basically the weight of all halibut -- is large and healthy. The problem is that most of the fish are small and, most important, sexually immature.
As a result, fishermen -- commercial, subsistence and recreational -- are all working over a small and shrinking population of adult fish. These are the spawners, Hare noted. And if too many are removed, the reproductive capability of the population as a whole takes a hit, which could have dire implications.
Fisheries managers admit they could gamble that a significant number of the millions of immature halibut will enter the population as adults in future years, but it's a gamble. There's no guarantee the young fish will survive to spawn.
How managers 'mis-estimated' fishery
And that's where what Hare called those "mis-estimations" enter the picture.
For years now, commission scientists have been calculating the size of the halibut population and setting catch limits based on the idea that immature fish will grow up and spawn. If the catch model worked and the ecosystem functioned normally, the population of adult halibut should have increased. Halibut removed by fishermen should have been replaced by an even larger number of young halibut growing to a size that allows them to join the spawners.
Only it hasn't worked that way. There is a problem, Hare said, with "unspecified mortality."
This is a fishery biologist's fancy label for a simple issue: a lot more halibut than are expected to die are obviously ending up dead. Nobody knows why. There could be illegal fishing. There could be more halibut than expected being killed by commercial longliners "high-grading" so they can bring larger fish -- the most valuable -- to dock. There could be more fish being killed and discarded as "waste" in other fisheries than is reported.
And there have been hints of disease and of food shortages, too.
Fishermen report sometimes catching "mushy" halibut that appear unhealthy. The average size of fish has been falling since the 1980s, an indication young halibut might be finding it difficult to get enough to eat. An 11-year-old halibut living in the northern Gulf of Alaska weighed on average nearly 50 pounds in the 1970s; now it weighs about 20 pounds.
One commission report suggested the problem might be tied to both food availability and the "increased abundance of other species, such as arrowtooth flounder." Arrowtooth flounder, a largely inedible flatfish, now comprises the largest biomass of fish in the northern Gulf, where industrialized fishing for human-favored species has been under way for decades.
Mature arrowtooth will eat young halibut, but more importantly, they compete with halibut for food. There have been studies hinting at the idea the ecological functioning of the Gulf could have been altered by the growing arrowtooth population.
But the ecological puzzle in incredibly complex. Arrowtooth compete with halibut for food, but are also eaten by larger halibut. The same can be said for any of a variety of other fish species, including Pollock and Pacific Ocean perch. The latter two species are heavily exploited by trawlers -- the strip-mining ships of the sea -- that also kill and discard significant numbers of halibut in what is known as "by-catch."
All of this makes it difficult for anyone to say exactly why the number of adult halibut continues to decline despite years of progressively reduced catches. Hare had only one word of explanation: "troubling."
What exactly is the IPHC proposing?
From a halibut management standpoint, however, the biology of the issue is pretty simple. To maintain maximum productivity, the commission needs to protect the maximum number of spawning-age fish. And though this sounds simple, the implications are huge. If, for instance, next year's halibut catch was based on the "retrospective mis-estimation" model, Area 3A would be reduced to about half of this year's catch.
Area 3A is the north Gulf of Alaska coast. It includes the big halibut ports like Homer, Seward and Kodiak, which boast not only large commercial fisheries but large recreational fisheries for halibut as well. Homer bills itself as "The Halibut Fishing Capital of the World." A significant chunk of the 14.4 million pound quota for commercial halibut catches in Area 3A moved through Homer this summer. Homer would really feel the pinch if the commission went with the "retrospective mis-estimation" model to set the 2012 catch.
If the commercial catch was cut from 14.4 million pounds this year to 5.2 million next year, the impacts on commercial halibut fishermen and processors would be devastating. But if the I.PHC is talking about cutting the total catch to 5.2 million pounds -- a commercial catch of 14.4 million pounds plus the 3.5 million pounds of fish under the guideline harvest level for the charter industry -- the impacts would be catastrophic.
Even a 5.2 million pound limit split 50-50 -- a division between commercial and sport fishing interests that has never happened in a major fishery in Alaska -- would leave Southcentral Alaska's charter fleet operating with a guideline harvest level below the 2011 catch. Meanwhile, the commercial fishery would be left trying to survive on less than 20 percent of what it caught this year.
And even the discussion of these kinds of cuts is sure to further inflame the war already being waged between the region's recreational anglers and commercial fishermen. The former were locked in a bitter battle with the latter to hang onto that guideline harvest level before the latest commission report came out.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council -- "the family" as members call themselves -- had earlier this year sided with the commercial fishermen and proposed a plan to hold charter anglers to a one-fish limit in summer 2012 to push the charter harvest down.
The Council is the body that recommends how the halibut catch should be split between commercial, recreational and subsistence fishermen. The International Pacific Halibut Commission is the U.S.-Canada treaty organization that actually sets the allowable catch level for that species. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the federal agency that has the final say on regulations.
Although NOAA has traditionally just rubber-stamped the recommendations of the North Pacific Council (a creation of the Magnuson-Steven Fisheries Act that extends U.S. authority over marine fisheries 200 miles out in the ocean), the federal agency earlier this year balked at the council's plan to come down on charter anglers in favor of commercial halibut longliners amid indications that the council's scheme could put a lot of Alaska tourist businesses under.
The plan was sent back to the council for further consideration. That body is supposed to start debating the issue again on Monday in Anchorage.
The halibut commission, meanwhile, is due to visit Anchorage Jan. 24-27, 2012, to wrestle with the issue of setting halibut quotas. The commission ended its interim meeting in Seattle with a private conference for staff. It expects to soon distribute a summary of the stock assessment information and the final staff recommendations.
In the meantime, the commission is accepting public proposals for 2012 catch limit changes.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com