Boats of the Amendment 80 fleet from Seattle that fish for flatfish, perch and other whitefish in the Bering Sea, where the halibut bycatch cap is 7.3m pounds. Credit:

As expected, citing continued declines in the Pacific halibut stock, fishery managers reduced the commercial catches in all Alaska fishing regions except for 3B, the Western Gulf.

Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer summed it up at the meeting last Friday of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

“These  declines are a result of a lack of recruitment into the fishery and although they do say that there’s some hope there, it looks like those 2011 and 2012 year classes are starting to show up more in the catches   and  it looks like there could be a couple of strong years. But overall the decline in the recruitment is still what’s behind these reductions in the catch limits coast wide.” 

The coast wide commercial halibut catch limit for 2020 was set at 23.1 million pounds, down 7 percent. Alaska’s share is just over 17 million pounds.

In 2C, Southeast Alaska, the 2020 halibut catch limit is 3.4 million pounds, down 5.54 percent.

Area 3A, the Central Gulf, gets just over 7 million pounds, a 12.53 percent drop.

The Western Gulf, Area 3B, got a boost to 2.41 million pounds, a 3.43 percent increase.

Both of the Aleutians areas took big hits – 4A at 1.41 million pounds is down 14.55 percent; Area 4B at 1.1 million is a 9.09 percent drop.

Halibut catches for Bering Sea communities were decreased by 15.20 percent to just 1.73 million pounds.

That’s to account for halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries which in the Bering Sea has a fixed cap of 7.3 million pounds and does not fluctuate based on stock abundance, as do all other user groups. For decades that has been the most heated issue at every IPHC meeting.

Bowen says the Canadians now say they should be compensated.

“The Canadians have not been happy with the bycatch levels here from the non-directed fisheries in Alaska for a long time, primarily from the trawl fleet. And they don’t believe that because of the low observer coverage that the numbers being reported are even accurate. And they also feel that since they’ve pretty much got their bycatch under control and reduced it by over 90% that they’re paying the price for the bycatch in that’s happening in the United States waters, in the Bering Sea and certainly in the Gulf of Alaska. They feel that those removals take away from the spawning biomass of the resource and that it’s hurting them,  and they would like to be compensated for what they see as fish that they won’t be catching.

“There is obviously still a lot of disagreement, but this is somewhat new – the idea of actually being compensated for this mortality that is a result of the bycatch of the non-directed halibut fisheries.”

Canadian Commissioner Peter DeGree voted against the 2020 catch limits because of the bycatch issue.

“After over 20 years Canada were flat out told that it could not slow down the machine that drives bycatch. We were told how the US kills its halibut is the US’s business,” he said in his closing remarks at the IPHC meeting.

“Canada wanted a plan for bycatch reduction and improved monitoring. Canada compromised and agreed to  a formula rather than a distinct share. This meant Canada took a cut when our survey was up and the stocks were thought to be positive. Trust is eroded.

“I came here today expecting to take a cut like everyone else, except for 2A and the factory trawlers. The trajectory of the stock is clear. With a relative spawning biomass of 32 we are teetering on the ramp. If we do not take cuts soon, in three years we have a one in five chance of being below a relative spawning biomass of under 20. That is a full stop for everyone but factory trawlers.  This is no way to manage a resource.”

The Pacific halibut fishery will open on March 14 and end on November 15.