Alaska halibut stocks are showing signs of an uptick, and for the first time in 15 years, commercial fishermen's catches will not be slashed this year.
Fishery managers on Friday set the coastwide Pacific halibut harvest at 29.89 million pounds, a 2.3 percent increase from 2015.
"This was probably the most positive, upbeat meeting in the past decade," said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. "The feeling is the stocks are up and the resource is stabilizing and recovering, and it's the first meeting in a long time that there weren't any areas that are looking at double-digit (percentage) cuts."
Because halibut paid more than $6 a pound at the docks last year, even a small increase can be lucrative. Bowen said it could push the price for halibut quota share to $60 a pound in major fishing region. That equates to $90,000 for a small lot of 1,500 pounds.
A scientist working for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which met last week in Juneau, agrees with Bowen.
"The bottom line for this year is that we can see some positive trends both in the data and in the stock assessment models," said Ian Stewart, whose agency manages the catches and fishery research for West Coast states including Alaska and British Columbia. "The stock appears to be stabilizing ... and the more years that we've seen this play out, the more certain we become of that."
Alaska's share of the total catch was set at 21.45 million pounds, an increase of 200,000 pounds.
Southeast saw the largest halibut gain for recreational and commercial users at 4.95 million pounds, a 6.1 percent hike. Scientists said that based on survey data, the Panhandle again showed the most improvement in both fish catches and weights.
However, catches in the state's biggest halibut fishing hole (Area 3A in the Central Gulf of Alaska) were cut 5 percent to 9.6 million pounds. The only region to be cut also happens to be home to the ports of Homer, Seward and Kodiak, where some of the biggest sport charter fleets operate.
Although the annual survey showed increased catches for the first time in nearly 12 years, scientists said they remain concerned that the fish are still growing slowly. They also had questions about potential inaccurate accountings of halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries.
For the Western Gulf (3B) the IPHC scientists said they "are optimistic that 3B has hit bottom and is showing stabilization."
The other three halibut fishing areas in the Aleutians and Bering Sea also showed "strong signs" of holding steady.
In other halibut news:
• The IPHC approved retention of halibut taken incidentally in sablefish (black cod) pots in the Gulf of Alaska to reduce whale predation. Previously, the fishermen had to throw the halibut back.
• A proposal to reduce the legal halibut size limit from 32 inches to 30 inches to reduce wastage of small fish failed.
• A similar proposal to limit the maximum size to 60 inches to protect large breeders also got a thumbs down.
The 2016 halibut fishery will begin March 19 and end on Nov. 7.
The IPHC also selected David Wilson as executive director, replacing Bruce Leaman, who served nearly 20 years. Wilson currently serves as secretary of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, and was formerly head of the International Fisheries Section of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resources Economics and Sciences. He will join the IPHC in August.
Here are the 2016 halibut catch limits in millions of pounds:
• 2C (Southeast): 4.95, up 0.3.
• 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 9.6, down 0.5.
• 3B (Western Gulf): 2.71, up 0.6.
• 4A (Western Aleutians): 1.39, flat
• 4B (Bering Sea): 1.14, flat
• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.66, up 0.4
• Total: 21.45 million pounds, up 0.2
Canned smoked herring, salmon caviar, sockeye salmon candy -- those are just a sample of 18 new products to be showcased this month at Alaska Symphony of Seafood events in Seattle, Juneau and Anchorage.
Symphony of Seafood promotes new, value-added products in four categories: retail; food service; Beyond the Plate; and new this year, Beyond the Egg.
"It's a great event for the industry, but it also shows how much work and effort is going into developing new products," said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the Symphony for 23 years. "It is good for everyone because it creates more value for the resource, and in the case of Beyond the Plate, which focuses on fish byproducts, it is actually using more of the resources."
The Beyond the Plate category attracted several entries, including wallets, key fobs and other items made from salmon and halibut skin. Another is an anti-aging serum that uses omega-3 oils from ArXotica, a western Alaska company based in Bethel (arxotica.com).
Another attention-getter is a product from Bambino's Baby Food of Anchorage (bambinosbabyfood.com)
"It is a frozen, portioned product made with halibut and Alaska-grown vegetables. It's really cool!" Decker said.
The new Beyond the Egg category attracted just one salmon caviar entry, with several more set to debut at next year's Symphony, she added.
All items will be judged by an expert panel prior to a Seattle bash on Feb. 10, with their choices remaining under wraps. That will be followed by a seafood soiree for Alaska legislators in Juneau on Feb. 16. Then it's on to Anchorage, where all winners will be announced on Feb. 19. Top winners in each category get a free trip in March to Seafood Expo North America in Boston. See the full lineup at afdf.org.
New life raft rules
New safety rules for life rafts go into effect on Feb. 26, when commonly used flotation devices will no longer be acceptable.
Smaller vessels will no longer be able to use life rings, rectangular red floats and other buoyant devices as their only form of survival gear, and instead must be equipped with a raft that ensures every passenger is safely out of the water in the case of a sinking.
"The big thing to remember is that it's one thing to be wet and cold -- it's another thing to be immersed in cold water," said Scott Wilwert, U.S. Coast Guard fishing safety coordinator in Juneau.
"On Feb. 26, survival craft requirements for commercial fishing vessels, as well as other classes of passenger vessels, will change in a way that if a vessel is operating beyond 3 miles from shore, they are required to have a survival craft that does not allow for an immersed segment of a person's body," he explained. "So the big change for any fishing vessel, regardless of length or the number of people on board, is that they have to step up to a survival craft that is called an inflatable buoyant apparatus or a full life raft."
An increased emphasis on safety appears to be paying off. For the first year-long period on record, from Oct. 1, 2014 through the end of September 2015, the Coast Guard recorded zero operations-related commercial fatalities in Alaska, an industry that saw an average of 31 fishermen perish each year through much of the 1980s.
Even boats that got mandatory dockside safety exams last fall will need to recheck their survival gear to comply with the new regulations, Wilwert said.
"If you know that the new rule affects you, I would definitely start working with a local marine supplier and get one coming your way," he said.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.