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Should Alaska have protected halibut nursery waters?

Craig Medred

Canada has protested that something needs to be done about the trawl industry killing and dumping 10 million pounds of halibut off Alaska's coast, but the International Pacific Halibut Commission proved powerless to do anything about it.

Meeting this week in Anchorage, the commission recognized the trawl catch as a potential problem, but then placed the burden of conservation squarely on the shoulders of commercial longliners along the Pacific Coast from Alaska south to California. The Commission again endorsed staff recommendations to shrink the catches of those fishermen in an effort to avoid an ever-shrinking population of adult halibut.

The action came after a week of meetings at which considerable time was spent discussing why huge numbers of North Pacific halibut don't translate into huge numbers of halibut for the commercial and sport fisheries.

Scientists painted a portrait of a sea full of juvenile halibut. The problem, however, is that those juveniles seem to be disappearing before they reach spawning age. Spawning age is about the time when halibut meet the 32-inch minimum-size limit for the commercial fishery and the weight at which anglers start to think about keeping the fish. A 32-inch fish generally weighs just under 15 pounds.

The numbers of these adult fish available for harvest, what the commission calls "biomass,'' has been creeping downward for a decade. How much of this is due to immature fish being caught, killed and wasted by the billion-dollar pollock trawl fishery -- which is in essence strip mining the Gulf of Alaska -- is unknown.

Commission staff this year noted the reported bycatch had fallen to 9.9 million pounds for 2011 -- down 6 percent from 2010 and the lowest since 1986. But nobody knows how many halibut were a part of that bycatch. It could have been 9.9 million fish at a pound each, or as little as a million fish of 10 pounds each. There are also serious questions about the accuracy of the reporting of this so-called bycatch.

Scientists, commercial halibut fishermen and anglers all believe the catch is under-reported. Advisers to the commission -- a U.S.-Canada treaty organization -- indicated they are beyond frustrated with the bycatch issue.

A "conference board'' of representatives from the two countries charged with advising the commission on halibut management suggested that it's about time to give serious consideration to creating protected nursery grounds for halibut off Alaska. The Gulf of Alaska from the eastern tip of the Aleutian Islands east past Kodiak Island to the entrance to the Panhandle is considered the prime breeding ground for the prized flatfish.

Bycatch in a key part of that area, according to the IPHC, was up 11 percent in 2011, at a time when stocks of adult halibut were in a significant decline. The Canadians took note. They submitted a formal proposal to the Commission to designate the Gulf, "'an area of special concern.' Area 3 (in the Gulf) is the geographic center of the halibut stock and Canada is very concerned...Canada should not and must not be penalized for uncontrolled bycatch in other regulatory (areas), which IPHC staff have indicated could be costing (Canada) approximately 1 million pounds of lost yield in each year based on current, and what Canada believes may be questionable, estimates of bycatch.”

The halibut that are spawned in Alaska migrate downstream to Canada.

At today's prices, 1 million pounds of halibut would be a loss of $7 million to Canadian fishermen alone. The Commission set Canada's catch limit for 2012 at just over 7 million pounds, which was much better than the limit for the adjacent Alaska coast. Southeast got a limit of 2.6 million pounds. Commercial fishermen to the north did better. The limit for Area 3A from near Yakutat west to Kodiak Island was almost 12 million pounds, although the Canadians wanted it cut to 7 million pounds. Area 3B from Kodiak west to Dutch was awarded 5 million pounds. The combined catch for the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea totaled about 6 million pounds.

Nobody was happy. The catches will cost commercial fishermen millions and exacerbate the simmering battle between that group and charter boat operators. The hard feelings between the two groups run so deep that the Halibut Coalition, a commercial fishermen's group based in Southeast Alaska, tried to get the Commission to kill an Alaska Department of Fish and Game authored plan to create a slot limit for charter anglers in that region. Those anglers were last year limited to a catch of only one fish under 37 inches. Charter operators said it decimated business.

Fish and Game concluded that the harvest level set for the charter fishery would allow for a limit of one fish under 45 inches or over 68 inches. The intent was to protect prime spawners -- adult females between about 35 pounds and 135 pounds -- while giving anglers a shot at a fish big enough for the table or, in those rare cases when an angler gets lucky, a true trophy. U.S. representatives on the conference board, who primarily represent commercial interests, voted 12 to 9 to oppose the idea.

The conference advisory group protested the number of halibut that would die as the result of catch and release was unknown. Charter interests countered that no matter what the size limit there would be catch and release. The Commission approved the slot limit plus an educational program to promote careful release. Various studies have concluded careful release of fish caught on hook and line can lower mortality to 5 percent or less.

Southeast Alaska charter operators praised the Commission's action, saying the new proposal should protect the fish without putting the surviving charter businesses underwater. The one-fish under 37-inches regulation last year was such a disaster charters ended up catching less than 50 percent of their quota. A lot of anglers just didn't show up because of the limit.

Commission actions Friday are not expected to have any affect on the 3A sport fishery which operates largely out of Homer, Ninilchik, Seward, Valdez and Whittier. The guideline harvest was reduced for that fishery, but remains significantly above the level of the 2011 catch. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is still wrestling with a long-term management plan for the charter fleet, while also coming under increasing pressure from the Commission and its various advisory bodies.

The Conference Board handed commissioners a five-motion statement on bycatch led by a demand that the Commission tell its staff to "identify areas which might be designated as nursery grounds'' with an eye toward pressing for fishing closures in those areas. The Commission lacks the power to enforce such closures, but it could make life politically uncomfortable for the North Pacific Council if it recommended a closure of a halibut nursery area in the 3A off the mouth of Cook Inlet and around Kodiak Island. Powerful trawl interests fish those waters.

Contact Craig Medred craig(at)alaskadispatch.com