IPHC takes conservative approach

By Molly Dischner

Morris News Service – Alaska 

SEATTLE — Commercial and charter halibut fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula will see a reduced catch in 2014 under limits announced Jan. 17 at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting.

The commission is the six-member body charged with regulating the halibut fishery from Northern California to the Bering Sea under the international Pacific halibut treaty, including setting the catch limit each year.

For Area 3A, or the western Gulf of Alaska including Homer, Seward, Valdez and Kodiak, commercial and charter anglers will have a combined catch limit of 9.43 million pounds, down from a commercial catch limit of 11.03 million pounds in 2013.

The cuts are the result of declining mature halibut biomass, although the IPHC’s quantitative scientist, Ian Stewart, said it appeared that the stock was leveling out.

The commercial fishery will run from March 8 to Nov. 7 in Alaska and along most of the coast, with a total catch of about 27.515 million pounds from Northern California to the Bering Sea.

Alaska’s share of the coastwide limit is about 19.7 million pounds, down from 2013, but slightly higher than the preliminary estimate that had been discussed in December. That figure, however, includes the charter catch for Southeast and Southcentral guided anglers, which means the commercial catch is lower than that number.

Although the conference board, which is the advisory body that represents harvesters, had advocated for higher limits, some Alaska fishermen said they were happy to see the commission take a conservation-minded approach.

“While it’s economically painful in the short term, I’m glad to see that the commission took most of the recommended cuts,” said Homer fisherman Malcolm Milne, from the North Pacific Fisheries Association. “This will hopefully put us at the bottom and we can start rebuilding.”

That catch limit in Area 3A will be divided between the charter and commercial sectors under the new catch sharing plan being implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service this year.

The commercial catch for Area 3A is 7.317 million pounds. Guided recreational fishermen will be limited to 1.782 million pounds, including wastage, in that area.

The charter share of the catch means that guided anglers will be limited to two fish when fishing out of Southcentral ports this summer, with the second fish limited to 29 inches or smaller in length. Charter vessels also will make only one trip per day.

That’s somewhat stricter than last year, when there was no limit on the size of the second fish and vessels could make multiple trips in a day. The daily limit mostly affects operators on the Kenai Peninsula, where multiple trips are most common.

The carcass of a filleted fish also must be retained on charter vessels now, because the size is limited.

By regulatory area, the 2014 combined commercial and charter quotas are as follows:

• 2A (Northern California-Washington): 960,000 pounds down from 990,000 pounds in 2013;

• 2B (Canada): 6.85 million pounds: down from 7.04 million pounds in 2013;

• 2C (Southeast Alaska): 4.16 million pounds, up from 2.97 million pounds in 2013;

• 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.84 million pounds, down from 4.29 million pounds in 2013;

• 4A (Alaska Peninsula): 850,000 pounds, down from 1.33 million pounds in 2013

• 4B (Aleutian Islands): 1.14 million pounds, down from 1.45 million pounds in 2013

• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.285 million pounds, down from 1.93 million pounds in 2013

The limits all passed unanimously.

In Southeast Alaska, charter anglers also will face slightly tighter regulations than 2013. Guided anglers can keep one fish per day, and it will again be under a reverse slot limit: The fish must be 44 inches long or shorter, or at least 76 inches long.

The decisions came Friday morning, after four days of staff and agency reports on the halibut fishery in the past year and updates on the stock status.

Seattle’s Bob Alverson, one of three American commissioners, made the motion for the catch limit.

The other American commissioners are Jim Balsiger, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska, and Don Lane, a commercial fishermen who lives in Homer. 

Balsiger served previously; Lane and Alverson were appointed for the first time in early January.

Lane said he looked forward to continuing his work on the commission.

“I enjoyed working with the industry, many of which I’ve known for years,” he said at the end of the meeting Friday.

Lane and Balsiger had indicated before the decision was made that they supported the preliminary estimate and trying to give the stock an opportunity to rebuild.

Although the coastwide catch is slightly higher than the estimate, it is lower than the 2013 catch.

Alverson said the cuts weren’t surprising and are necessary for the stock.

“I knew going in that the resource is in trouble, and I knew that some tough decisions had to be made,” he said Friday after the meeting ended. 

The commission also approved other regulatory proposals and discussed its future meetings. Canadian Commissioner Paul Ryall will be the chair for 2014-2015, and the next annual meeting will be held in Vancouver, B.C., Jan. 26-30, 2015. The commission also is looking at having the 2014 interim meeting, scheduled for Dec. 2-3, at a commercial facility rather than the IPHC offices, in part to help with the ongoing effort to make the process more open and transparent.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.