New modeling brings mixed messages, confusion about status of the stock
Halibut catch limits for 2023 will be revealed on Friday, the final day of the International Pacific Halibut Commission annual in-person meeting that runs from January 23-27 in Victoria, British Columbia.
The IPHC was established by a Convention between Canada and the US in 1923 and includes three commissioners from each country. The IPHC oversees the health of the Pacific halibut stock and sets the catch limits and seasons for eight separate fishing regions in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.
The coastwide catch limit for 2022 was 40.2 million pounds which includes takes by commercial, sport, subsistence users and halibut caught and discarded as bycatch.
Alaska’s commercial halibut fishery last year produced nearly 17.6 million pounds out of a 20.3 million pound catch limit for roughly 2,000 fishermen who hold quota shares of the prized fish. Prices remained sky-high during the nine month season that begins in early March, averaging in the $6 to over $7 per pound range.
There’s been lots of confusing, mixed messages from the IPHC abut the status of the Pacific stock and it’s anyone’s guess what the 2023 halibut catches might be.
“This new modeling the IPHC used, with their new understanding of natural mortality, really threw a wrench in things and made it difficult to compare 2022 survey results and the decision table for 2023 to previous years,” explained Maddie Lightsey of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
And conflicts could arise between the US and Canada.
“There seems to be a push, primarily from Area 3 stakeholders (Central and Western Gulf) for a conservative approach, and particularly to get away from the large ups and downs we’ve seen in recent years. In 2C (Southeast AK), stakeholders feel less inclined to take cuts, because their survey results weren’t nearly as bad. There are concerns that the US and Canada won’t be able to come to an agreement again this year, similar to what happened back in 2018.” Lightsey added.
“The disagreement, as I understand it, is over Canada wanting a fixed percentage of the coastwide harvest, unrelated to 2B’s (Canada) survey results, and they want the US to agree to a long-term deal,” Lightsey explained. “The US isn’t excited about that. It sounds like there is hope for agreement for 2023, but not for the long-term agreement that Canada wants,” she explained.
Canadian commissioners also have long been angered over the high rates of halibut caught and discarded as bycatch in Alaska trawl fisheries and believe that should be factored into annual fish allocations between the two countries.
IPHC executive director Dr. David Wilson provided this assessment to global marketing expert Tradex prior to the annual meeting: “Due to poor recruitment from 2006-2011, the Pacific halibut stock is at a long-term low in terms of absolute numbers/biomass of fish. Although it is not at a point of conservation concern, fishery catch rates in 2022 were also at a multi-decadal low, so there are concerns as to whether the current conditions are acceptable for fishery participants in terms of socio-economic performance.”
Wilson added: “Any potential quota set for 2023 in excess of 43 [million pounds] will have a high likelihood of causing further reductions in stock size and fishery performance. The F43% reference level of fishing intensity corresponds to a 2023 coastwide TCEY (Total Constant Exploitation Yield) of 52 [million pounds]. Although this level of fishing is sustainable over the long-term, in the short-term it would correspond to a very high likelihood of further stock decrease.
More fish meetings coming up, comments wanted
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets February 6-13 in Seattle. Rebuilding the Bering Sea snow crab stock is tops on the agenda while no further discussions on Bristol Bay are planned. Public comments are accepted through February 3.
The state Board of Fisheries (BOF) meets February 20-25 at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage to address 55 management proposals for the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Island, and Chignik regions . Public comments are due by February 3.