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Halibut stocks continue to decline amid concerns

As expected, there will be fewer halibut available for fishermen to catch this year -- an 18 percent reduction to 33 million pounds, split among fisheries along the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. That follows a 19 percent cut to the catch last year.

The announcement was made at the International Pacific Halibut Commission's annual meeting last week in Anchorage. Alaska always gets the lion's share of the catch, which this year will be 25.5 million pounds.

Driving the decreases: Pacific halibut stocks continue a decade-long decline, fish are smaller than they should be at age, and, most troubling, scientists believe they have overestimated the halibut biomass for years.

Most stakeholders accepted the catch limits, but the overall mood was concern for the health of the resource, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.

The elephant in the meeting room was the millions of pounds of halibut taken as bycatch in other Alaska fisheries and by law discarded. While the halibut commission sets catch limits for halibut, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees the limits for halibut taken as bycatch in federally managed fisheries.

"It's a bit uncomfortable to be from Alaska, where we supposedly have sustainable fisheries and the best management in the world," Hansen said. "And we have the Pacific Council and Canada saying, 'Hey, we've dealt with getting a better observer program, we've reduced bycatch significantly with new programs, and what are you guys in Alaska doing?' All we can say is the (North Pacific) Council is looking at things again."

"It's time for them to get serious and make some accommodations so we can say, yes we are moving toward trying to identify how much bycatch is being taken in fisheries and reduce that amount."

Five bycatch-related motions were adopted by the Halibut Commission Conference Board, a panel that includes 30 commercial and sport users from the U.S. and 21 from Canada "to give the fishers' perspective," according to the commission's website.

"The Board believes that accurate accounting of all removals is critical for development of (an) accurate stock assessment, and for understanding the health of the halibut resource and the exploitable biomass available to the directed fisheries," according to 2012 board meeting minutes.

The Conference Board said it wants a report next January that identifies areas that might be designated as nursery grounds, and assesses the future effects on stocks if those areas were completely closed for halibut. The board also recommended that federal managers implement a restructured observer program in 2013.

The 2012 halibut fishery will open March 17. Here are the Alaska catch limits, in pounds:

2C (Southeast): 2.6 million, up 12 percent

3A (Central Gulf): 11.9 million, down 17 percent

3B (Western Gulf): 5 million, down 32 percent

4A (Aleutians): 1.5 million, down 35 percent

4B (Aleutians): 1.8 million, down 17 percent

4CDE (Bering Sea): 2.4 million, down 34 percent

Fish on ice

High winds, frigid temperatures and sea ice have put the brakes on Alaska's winter fisheries. Hundreds of boats are tied to the docks awaiting a break in the weather.

"It is the coldest I've seen in 10 years of fishing," said Nick Mangini, skipper of the Kodiak-based F/V Enterprise, which has targeted pot cod since the start of the year. "I'm glad I'm in the wheelhouse, but I really feel for the guys on deck."

What forecasters call "big ice" has blocked the Bering Sea snow crab fishery with floes a foot and a half thick and 15 miles wide. The pack is also moving more quickly, according to the National Weather Service -- 20 miles a day instead of the usual two to three miles.

The ice can drag crab pots for miles and pop the marker buoys, making it tough for crabbers to find them. More than 8,000 crab pots are on the Bering Sea grounds; at $1,000 a pot, the losses can be substantial.

Fortunately, lost pots will not "ghost fish." All pot gear in Alaska fisheries must use biodegradable twine and escape panels to allow crabs and smaller species to go free.

Along with the crabbers, pollock boats also are being frozen out of their fishery. The trawl season opened Jan. 20, but the weather had kept most of the Bering Sea boats tied up to the Dutch Harbor docks.

A fleet of 80 catcher boats and 16 at-sea processors is expected on the fishing grounds to haul in nearly 3 billion pounds, split between winter and summer seasons.

Another quarter of a million pounds will come from the Gulf of Alaska, a 21 percent increase from last year. Weather has delayed that 50-boat fleet too. Fishermen are also waiting for the valuable pollock roe to ripen. The rest of the pollock is made into fillets and surimi. Market watchers say demand is strong for all three products at home and overseas.

The outlook for Alaska pollock is good, thanks to good reproduction and survival of young fish. In the eastern Bering Sea, dubbed the nation's "fish basket," year classes from 2006 and 2008 are up 17 percent and 26 percent, respectively. That pollock will fuel the fishery for the next few years.

Alaska pollock is the nation's largest fishery, accounting for nearly 35 percent of U.S. seafood landings.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact