Low stock numbers, fewer recruits drive the decline
Pacific halibut fishermen will have fewer fish to catch this year in all but the west coast region.
Total “removals” of Pacific halibut were cut by 10.31% for 2023 to 36.97 million pounds for all users. That includes takes by commercial, sport, subsistence fishermen and halibut caught and discarded as bycatch in eight fishing regions for California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.
The catch numbers, referred to as “mortality limits,” were revealed on Friday, January 27, during the final day of the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. The IPHC includes three commissioners each from the U.S. and Canada. Since 1923 it has overseen the health of the Pacific halibut stock and sets the annual catch limits and fishing seasons.
(TCEY stands for Total Constant Exploitation Yields)
The bulk of the halibut catch goes to commercial fisheries. For 2023 the total catch limit was decreased to 24.9 million pounds, an 11.29% decrease from the 28.07 million pounds allocated in 2022.
Alaska fishermen always get the lion’s share of the Pacific halibut catch and this year the limits were reduced in every region. Total Alaska catches were cut by nearly 12% to just under 19 million pounds, compared to 21.5 million pounds last year.
It was “a long and arduous meeting for both US and Canadian stakeholders,” said Maddie Lightsey of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
Canada fears AK bycatch threatens health of the halibut stock
There was a push for the catch limits to be more conservative across all user groups,” she said, but disagreement “on exactly what the cuts should look like and how the burden should be shared.”
Alaska’s high rates of halibut taken as bycatch for decades was again a hot button issue.
“As with the last few years, Canada’s allocation incorporates mitigation sublegal, halibut under 26 inches caught by the trawlers out west, which Canada argues impacts the future spawning potential of the stock,” Lightsey reported from the IPHC meeting.
The cuts to Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska), Area 3B (Western Gulf), and Area 4A (Aleutian Islands) were considerably deeper than what stakeholders in those areas proposed,” Lightsey said.
For the Central Gulf, the largest fishing region, halibut catches this year of 7.84 million pounds reflect a nearly 18% drop from 2022. A Western Gulf catch of 3.09 million pounds is a nearly 8% cut. The hardest hit was the Aleutian Islands region where catches were slashed nearly 20% to 1.41 million pounds.
For other Alaska regions, Southeast (Area 2C) fishermen will target 3.4 million pounds of halibut, down 2.85%. The Area 4B section of the Aleutian Islands took a nearly 4.7% cut to 1.22 million pounds. The Bering Sea (Area 4CDE) halibut catch limit was decreased by nearly 2% to 2.02 million pounds.
The disappointing outcome stems from results of the 2022 survey of the Pacific halibut stock that showed coastwide numbers per skate were down 8%. A skate is a leaded ground line in 100 fathom lengths that has approximately halibut 100 hooks attached to it.
Halibut poundage per skate was down 11%, and the coastwide catch of legal sized fish over 32 inches was down 18%.
Prior to the meeting, IPHC executive director Dr. David Wilson said: “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.”
Last year 2,241 Alaska fishermen holding Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ) of the halibut resource participated in the fishery spanning from the Panhandle to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.
Kodiak bumped Homer from the top spot with halibut landings at nearly 2.8 million pounds compared to about 2.5 million pounds at Homer.
The 2023 Pacific halibut fishery will open on March 10 and run through December 7.