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Commercial catches of Pacific halibut increase for most Alaska regions

Contrary to some expectations, commercial catches of Pacific halibut were increased for 2019 in all but one Alaska region.

The numbers were revealed recently at the International Pacific Halibut Commission annual meeting in Victoria, British Columbia.

The increases were due to rising estimates of the overall halibut biomass based on expanded surveys last summer from Northern California to the Bering Sea, said Doug Bowen, who operates Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

“There’s a couple of strong year classes from 2011 and 2012 that are just starting to show up in the commercial catches, and I think the scientists are cautiously optimistic that we could see some better harvests as a result of those halibut entering the fishery,” he said in a phone call as he was leaving the meeting.

The coastwide commercial catches were increased to nearly 25 million pounds, almost 6 percent higher than 2018. Alaska’s share will be just under 20 million pounds, a boost of about 3 million pounds.

Southeast Alaska’s catch was upped by just over 1 percent to 3.6 million pounds; the Central Gulf gets a nearly 10 percent increase to more than 8 million pounds.

The Western Gulf is the only Alaska region to get a halibut reduction. A catch of 2.3 million pounds is a drop of more than 11 percent.

Halibut harvests at the two Aleutian Islands regions were increased to well over 1 million pounds and the Bering Sea catches went up by nearly 30 percent to top 2 million pounds.

Bowen said the increases came despite concerns by IPHC executive director David Wilson.

“He feels that any coastwide catches over 20 million pounds will result in declines in the biomass. So, it is interesting that the catch limits are going up in light of the fact that we do have both declining recruitment and harvest rates coastwide,” Bowen said.

The halibut fishery will open March 15 and run through Nov. 14, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association. And in more good news for Alaska, Milne added that next year’s IPHC annual meeting will be held in Anchorage.

Deckhands wanted

The call is out for Alaskans interested in learning firsthand about commercial fishing.

It’s the second year for the Crewmember Apprenticeship program hosted by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. More than 100 applied last year from all over the country, over half were women, and 13 were placed on local boats.

“It’s very exciting to see so many young people interested in entering the industry,” said Tara Racine, ALFA communications and program development coordinator. “You always hear about the graying of the fleet but it shows that the interest is out there. Young people just need these resources to explore and get involved.”

ALFA received a $70,000 matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to launch the program last year and to help support expansion of similar apprenticeships in Alaska. “We are hoping to share any information and lessons that we’ve learned and materials we’ve created from this program and give it to anyone interested in doing a program like this,” Racine said.

Most of the recruits last year went out on longline and troll vessels and plans include expanding to seiners and gillnetters in a flexible fishing schedule.

“We have short- and long-term programs,” she said. “It could be just a couple of days for people who just want an introduction to fishing. We also have plenty of individuals who go out for the entire season or several weeks at a time.”

The rookies are paid for their work and Racine said skippers are eager to show them the ropes.

“The skippers that are interested are looking for reliable crew and want to mentor the next generation of resource stewards and skilled fishermen,” she said. “So not only are they training a pool of young people as deckhands, they also are ensuring the life of this industry that they love and is so important to our coastal communities.”

Longtime salmon troller Eric Jordan has mentored more than 40 young fishermen aboard his vessel, the I Gotta. Out on the water, he teaches them the intricacies of commercial trolling and encourages a strong conservation ethic. He calls the apprenticeship program “a win-win for the crewmembers and the skippers.”

“The future of our fisheries is dependent on young fishermen learning to love and care for the fish we harvest and the habitat essential to their well-being,” said Jordan. “Finding crew with some experience is critical for individual businesses and the industry as a whole. Our generation’s legacy will be defined how we, as Alaskan fishermen, rebuilt and enhanced our fisheries, and how we mentored the next generation.”

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