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Laine Welch: Only Southeast escapes hit in recommended halibut catch

Laine Welch

It comes as no surprise that the recommendations for next year's halibut catches are down again for all regions except Southeast Alaska.

Fishery scientists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission have recommended a 2014 coastwide commercial catch total of 24.45 million pounds, a 21 percent decrease from the 31 million pounds allowed for this year. That includes catches in Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Coast states.

In a summation at a meeting in Seattle last week, the IPHC said: "The results of the 2013 stock assessment indicate that the Pacific halibut stock has been declining continuously over much of the last decade as a result of decreasing size-at-age, as well as recruitment strengths that are much smaller than those observed through the 1980s and 1990s."

Here are the proposed catch limits for Alaska regions in millions of pounds, compared to the totals from 2013 in parentheses:

Southeast Alaska (2C) -- 4.16 (2.97);

Central Gulf (3A) -- 9.43 (11.03);

Western Gulf (3B) -- 2.84 (4.29);

Alaska Peninsula (4A) -- 0.85 (1.33);

Aleutian Islands region (4B) -- 0.82 (1.45);

Bering Sea (4CDE) 0.64 (1.94).

Final decisions on the catch limits, season start date and regulation changes will be made by the IPHC at its annual meeting, Jan. 13-17 in Seattle.

While the Pacific halibut catches have been declining for decade, the value of the fishery has also been on a downward trend for the past four years.

Near the end of each year bills are sent out to Alaska longliners who hold shares of the halibut and sablefish (black cod) catches. They are required to pay an annual fee to the federal government to cover the costs for managing and enforcing those fisheries. The fee, which is capped at 3 percent, is based on dock prices and averaged across the state.

The billings were mailed out in late November to 2,024 fishermen, 90 fewer than last year, according to Troie Zuniga, fee coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

This year the combined halibut and sablefish fisheries paid a fee of 2.8 percent, which yielded $5 million for coverage costs.

For halibut, the overall dockside value of the 2013 fishery was $105 million, and about $72 million for black cod.

"That's about $32 million lower than the 2012 value for halibut and $37 million lower for black cod," Zuniga said, adding that it reflects a fishery value decline of nearly 28 percent over four years.

In terms of fish prices, the average for halibut this year was $5.06 per pound compared to $5.87 last year; for sablefish, an average price of $2.84 per pound is a drop from $4.11 in 2013.

The Bering Sea crab industry also pays a fee for its catch share programs, which yielded $3.5 million in coverage costs for the 2012-2013 fishing year. Between 20 to 30 processors are responsible for collecting payments from crabbers and paying those bills in July, Zuniga said.

NOAA doesn't track crab prices, only the total dock value of the fisheries. The Bering Sea crab industry also took a big hit, coming in at $232 million, a $55 million drop from last year. Zuniga said the fee for the 2013-2014 Bering Sea crab fishing year is 0.69 percent.

Golden mysteries

Golden king crab from the far flung Aleutian Islands are one of Alaska's biggest stocks -- and one of its biggest mysteries.

"They are such an interesting animal and they live in rocky, underwater mountain ranges where they hang on the cliffs ... there is almost nothing known about the Aleutian Islands -- it is probably one of the least studied parts of Alaska," said John Hilsinger, new science advisor for the Aleutian King Crab Research Foundation.

The group was formed by crabbers last year to learn more about the remote fishery. Hilsinger, who replaces Denby Lloyd, said that's what attracted him to the group.

"It was the fact that the crab fishermen were interested in creating the nonprofit foundation and funding the research to work with the Department and National Marine Fisheries Service to try to get some information about these animals," Hilsinger said in a phone interview from Anchorage. He said golden kings are "Alaska's most unique crab fishery" because the fishing grounds extend for over 800 miles.

During his nearly four decades with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Hilsinger was one of the first to push for research-fishing partnerships, starting with the Yukon River Drainage Association 25 years ago. He retired as director of commercial fisheries in 2010.

As science adviser, he will work with the Aleutian crabbers to expand stock surveys they began last year. The rare surveys showed lots of large golden crabs are out there and lots of small recruits. Hilsinger said the golden crabs also are really tough and survive injuries that would kill other crab.

"That is an interesting mystery," he said. "Crab have an open circulatory system, meaning the blood is not contained in vessels and when you crack the shell, the blood leaks out. With golden king crab when you crack that shell, the blood does not appear to leak out and they don't bleed to death. I don't think anyone knows why that is yet."

Another mystery -- the Aleutians crab seem unharmed by increasingly corrosive oceans. Hilsinger said that's likely due to their extreme depths of up to 250 fathoms (1,500 feet, or five times deeper than waters for red king crab).

"That's a real important characteristic for the future with expectations that ocean acidification will increase -- that will be a potential threat to other crab species that are not so resilient," Hilsinger said.

Fish correction: Fishermen from Western Alaska are requesting an increase in halibut catches for Area 4E (Bering Sea) and not Area 4A, as I said last week.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state or found at alaskafishradio.com. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.


Laine Welch
Fisheries