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Business/Economy

A tough break for commercial fishermen: Pacific halibut catches likely to drop next year

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: December 8
  • Published December 3

It's going to be a tough year for many Alaska fishermen.

After announcements of a massive drop in cod stocks, the industry learned last week that Pacific halibut catches are likely to drop by 20 percent next year, and the declines could continue for several years.

That could bring the coastwide catch for 2018, meaning from Oregon to British Columbia to the Bering Sea, to about 31 million pounds.

Scientists at the International Pacific Halibut Commission interim meeting in Seattle revealed that survey results showed halibut numbers were down 23 percent from last summer, and the total biomass (weight) dropped 10 percent. The surveys are done each year from May through September at nearly 1,500 stations from Oregon to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

While the Pacific halibut catches have ticked up slightly over the past three years, indications of a fall back have been noted, said IPHC senior scientist Ian Stewart.

The biggest drop stems from a lack of younger fish entering the halibut fishery. Stewart said the 9- to 18-year-old year classes that have been sustaining the recent halibut fishery are not being followed up by younger fish.

"In 2018, and especially projecting out to 2019, we are moving out of a fishery that is dominated by those relatively good recruitments starting in 1999 and extending to 2005. We see an increasing number of relatively poor recruitments stemming from at least 2009 and 2010," he said.

Although they are not factoring them into their halibut catch computations, scientists for the first time are looking closely at environmental and habitat conditions, as well as trends in other fisheries.

Stewart said warmer waters starting in 2007 appear to correspond to the lower halibut year classes. Most relevant to the drop in halibut recruitment in recent years, as with Pacific cod, are the effects of "the blob."

"Especially through 2015 to 2016 we saw that warmer water extending even to deeper shelf waters in the Gulf of Alaska," he said. "We've seen a big increase the last several years in pyrosomes, which are these nasty gelatinous zooplankton, well documented sea bird die offs and whale strandings. So some abnormal things are going on in the Gulf."

The IPHC does not always follow the recommendations of its scientists. Final decisions will be made at the annual meeting Jan. 22-26 in Portland, Oregon.

Halibut catches

A Recreational Quota Entity program was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that will allow halibut catch shares to be purchased and held in a common pool for charter operators to draw from as needed.

Under the plan, the RQE can hold 10 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Southeast Alaska and 12 percent from the Southcentral region, making it the single largest halibut-holding entity in the North Pacific.

The program would be phased in over 10 years with transfers of 1 percent and 1.2 percent from each region, respectively.

It is unclear where the RQE will get the estimated $25 million needed to buy halibut shares. Some have suggested a self-funding option such as a halibut stamp, similar to king salmon, or a voluntary tax.

The RQE program is strongly opposed by commercial fishermen. In written comments, the Halibut Coalition's Tom Gemmell stated that the RQE "undermines the goal of maintaining an owner operated fleet, and will force fishermen to compete for quota against a subsidized entity."

Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, said charter effort has remained relatively constant or increased despite catch conservation measures.

"Charter operators claim their clients need more harvesting opportunity despite low abundance, ignoring the obvious need for all sectors to conserve during times of low abundance," Behnken said.

Longtime fisheries advocate Clem Tillion called RQEs the "death of a small boat, owner operated fishery" adding "Holland America and Carnival Cruise lines will buy the quota and hired hands will fish it, and the small boat fleet out of villages is gone."

The charter limits would go down by the same percentage as commercial fishing limits.

The RQE plan, if implemented, would begin in 2019.

Gender on the agenda

Recognizing the roles of women in the seafood industry and making them more visible is the goal of the new group International Association for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) and input is being gathered from around the world.

The nonprofit, launched a year ago, was created by seafood and gender issues specialists to highlight imbalances in the industry, to shed light on women's real participation and to promote greater diversity and inclusiveness.

One in two seafood workers is a woman, WSI claims, yet they are over-represented in low-skilled, low-paying positions and account for less than 10 percent of company directors and a mere 1 percent of CEOs.

"There is a gender imbalance," said Marie Catherine Monfort, WSI president and co-founder.

Monfort, who is based in Paris, has been working in the seafood industry for several decades, both as an economist and a seafood marketing analyst.

"I noticed that in most meetings I was surrounded by men, and I could only see men speaking in most conversations. Women were very numerous in this industry, but not very visible. They are not taken into account by the policy makers and by employers as well. That was the main motivation," she said in a phone conversation.

To gather more perceptions on women's roles in the industry, WSI launched a first of its kind survey in September at a World Seafood Congress in Iceland.

It went so well, she said, that WSI decided to translate the survey into French, English and Spanish and expand it to the entire world.

"The questions center around what is the position of women in your company, and what is your opinion of the situation of women in the industry. Are there areas where things could be improved, or maybe some feel there is no need for any improvement," Monfort said, adding that responses by both sexes are welcomed.

"It is very important to also collect men's opinions, and it will be interesting to see if men and women have the same or differing opinions," she said. "The results will help us cultivate a better future with equal opportunities and increase awareness of women's roles in the seafood industry. The more we are, the stronger we will be."

The "Gender on the Agenda" survey is open through December, and results will be available by early March. Contact Monfort at contact@wsi-asso.org with questions.

Crab wrap

The Bristol Bay red king crab season wrapped up after about five weeks, and by all accounts, it was uneventful.

"Fishermen were seeing about what we expected from the survey, with a little bit slower fishing and pockets of crab without real wide distribution," said Miranda Westphal, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor.

The red king crab catch quota this year of 6.6 million pounds was down 22 percent from last season, and the lowest catch since 1996.

The crab was "big and nice," said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.

There's no word yet on price, and Jacobsen said negotiations will likely continue into January. Red king crab averaged $10.89 per pound to fishermen last year, the highest price ever. Jacobsen said the price is likely to be lower this year.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Recreational Quota Entity program, should it get final approval by federal managers, will provide an opportunity for halibut charter operators to purchase catch shares, but it will not automatically increase charter catches as originally reported. The charter limits would go down by the same percentage as commercial fishing limits. Should the RQE program be implemented, it would begin in 2019 and not 2018, as originally reported.

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