Range of the Pacific halibut stock    Credit: IPHC

 A “resounding success” is how scientists summed up this summer’s Pacific halibut survey despite it being shortened and scaled down a bit due to the Covid pandemic.

The so-called fishery-independent setline survey (FISS) uses standardized methods to track trends in the Pacific halibut stock which ranges from the west coast and British Columbia to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

This summer 11 longline vessels took halibut scientists aboard for two months to fish at 898 survey stations, down 30% from the planned 1,283. The foregone areas were waters off California, Oregon and Washington. For Alaska, survey areas in the Bering Sea near the Pribilofs were cut, along with stations at the Aleutian Islands near Unalaska and Adak.

 “We also thinned out a little bit in 3B, the Western Gulf of Alaska, and we also removed the stations off Vancouver Island.”   

David Wilson is director of  the International Pacific Halibut Commission which includes the U.S. and Canada.

He says roughly 70% of the Pacific halibut biomass overall was sampled and 100% in the core areas of the central Gulf, Southeast and northern British Columbia.

“Normally we would have done a thinner sampling in those areas but to ensure that we had enough samples coming out we went for 100 percent in those areas which is why we produced an incredibly rich data set for 2020.”

The caught fish are sold to cover the costs of the surveys.  Wilson said this year’s team produced the most data-rich setline-survey in the IPHC’s 97 year history.

“The key thing is that we were able to meet both our scientific requirements and also maintain our economic goal of revenue neutrality.”

More survey findings and a first glimpse at how the halibut stocks are holding up will be unveiled at the IPHC’s interim meeting set for the 18 and 19 of November. Wilson says the meetings will be held online.

“Which shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for this meeting. The interim meeting is usually an information sharing meeting for stakeholders where we present the preliminary stock assessments and the outcomes of other research activity. We  sort of put in front of stakeholders some of the regulatory proposals we will be considering at the  annual meeting.”

Halibut catch limits and other regulations are revealed at the annual meeting in late January in Victoria, Canada.

The Pacific stocks have been declining; Alaska’s commercial halibut catch for this year is about 17 million pounds. The eight month fishery begins in March and ends in early November.