The Pacific halibut fishery ends today/Tuesday and there are some good signs looking ahead. Notably, a big year class appears to be recruiting into the fishery reflecting some new trends.

“And these correspond to a shift both in the fish and in the fishery to younger fish.”  

Ian Stewart is lead scientist for the International Pacific Halibut Commission speaking at last week’s interim IPHC meeting.   .

“These younger fish are the 2012 year class which are emerging as stronger than the six years previous to that. And these fish are going to be increasingly important to the spawning biomass projections because they are going to be maturing over the next few years. However, we are just now getting a solid read on the magnitude of the year class.” 

Pacific halibut is modelled as a single stock extending from northern California to British Columbia to the Bering Sea. Stewart says older halibut growing bigger are reflected less in the stock than numbers of new fish recruiting in.

“And this is the opposite of what we’ve seen over the last several years. The survey and the fishery have been accessing fish that were growing older. That’s now reversed for this year, reflecting this change from older fish to younger fish moving into the stock.”

The summer survey showed coastwide combined numbers per setline increased by 17% from 2020, reversing declines over the past four years. The weights of legal sized fish (over 32 inches) also increased by 4%.

Stewart says the halibut also appear to have shifted distribution back to the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska where abundance showed a 28% increase.

“We started to see an increase in 2020 but it’s become much more pronounced leading up to a proportion of the stock in Region 3 that is larger than anything we’ve seen in almost a decade, and particularly in the Western Central Gulf.”  

Conversely, Area 2C, Southeast Alaska showed a slight decline in abundance and this year’s survey also showed a “very strong” decrease of halibut abundance in the Bering Sea.

“In Region 4 on the basis of the 2021 survey we can now see a very strong decrease in the numbers of fish which was not evident in last year’s result.”  

The 2021 coastwide halibut catch limit for all users was 39 million pounds, a 6.5% increase.

Alaska’s total commercial catch limit was 19.6 million pounds and all regions except for the Bering Sea saw increased catches.

Final decisions on 2022 halibut catches will be made at the IPHC annual meeting January 24-28 in Bellevue, WA.