Seawatch: Downward trend predicted for halibut

The International Pacific Halibut Commission held its interim meeting last week in Seattle and once again is predicting a downward trend for the resource, something that has been obvious from the data the past several years but has not necessarily resulted in lower quotas.

Stakeholders and managers from the U.S. and Canada heard a summary of the 2019 season as well as results of one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted by IPHC.

In presenting the data, IPHC’s quantitative scientist Ian Stewart got right to the point, according to Peggy Parker at Seafoodnews.com.

“Estimated spawning biomass decreased from 2018-2019 (as predicted); this is projected to continue for all 2020 TCEYs greater than 18.4 (million pounds)” over the next three years, he noted.

TCEY’s (total constant exploitation yield) is defined as total removals, including not only commercial catch, but recreational, sport charter, waste, and subsistence. Last year the TCEY was 38.61 million pounds, the year before, 37.21 million pounds.

A drop in TCEY from 38.61 million pounds to 18.4 million pounds would require a precipitous drop in quota for the commercial and sport charter fisheries, which are the only fisheries where the IPHC has control over removals. Other removals are governed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

The spawning biomass is now estimated at 194 million pounds, down slightly from last year, as predicted.

The modeled survey trends are down for both number per unit of effort, down 4% over last year, and weight per unit of effort, down 5% over last year coastwide, but regulatory areas varied widely.

Rather than go by regulatory areas such as 3A, etc., the IPHC research arm has divided areas into four geographic regions

Region 3, including the central and western Gulf of Alaska, declined by 10 percent in NPUE to the lowest estimate since 1992 while waters off of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California as well as the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands all increased slightly, but remain near historic lows.

Halibut out west, in Area 3B, western Gulf of Alaska, showed a significant increase in WPUE of 26%, while in Area 3A, central GOA, the WPUE dropped by 17%. Commercial fishery WPUE increased 4 percent coastwide, with wide-ranging results from in individual areas. This year’s survey again discriminated between gear types, separating fixed gear from snap on, and showed a significant difference between the two.

In Area 3A, fixed gear caught 6% more WPUE than last year while snap hook gear caught 21% more. Meanwhile, in the eastern GOA fixed hooks were 45% more efficient than last year, while snap hooks were 32% more efficient than last year, Parker reported.

No explanation for those differences was offered at the meeting.

While these levels of detail will be looked at closely in the months before February’s week-long annual meeting, decisions on how to distribute a smaller amount of catch among two countries and nine regulatory areas were already being proposed by stakeholders who could see a ‘perfect storm’ forming in the Bering Sea, according to Parker.

Last year the commissioners, three from the U.S. and three from Canada, agreed to two allocation decisions that this year may hamstring efforts to provide enough halibut for Area 4CDE, the central Bering Sea, to even go fishing.

The first decision was to provide a fixed minimum of 1.65 million pounds to Area 2A, Washington, Oregon, and California. The second was a formula for the Canadian allocation that was designed to mitigate their current and future losses from the trawl bycatch in the Bering Sea. That catch increased this year, which threw last year’s projections off and will likely result in lower catches to that area next year.

The trawl bycatch includes sub-legal and legal sized halibut, while mortalities from the halibut fleet include mostly fish larger than 26 inches, due to the type of gear they use. Smaller fish that survive become recruitment year classes, which is at near all-time record lows now. The portion of the trawl bycatch that is under 26-inch fish are incorporated in the stock assessment, but the legal-size fish that are removed from each area are subtracted from that area’s available catch off the top. Since most trawl halibut bycatch is done in the Bering Sea, areas 4CDE are most affected when that number increases.

Having fixed minimum allocations to Area 2A and 2B, British Columbia, will increase the difficulty in providing enough halibut to merit a fishery, in the eyes of quota holders, next year. It is a zero-sum game in the midst of declining stock where Alaska becomes the only place with wiggle room. The proposals to avoid this were presented and will be developed between now and the annual meeting.

Coastwide catch limits, distribution schemes, and much more will be discussed and decided upon at the 96th session of the IPHC’s annual meeting in Anchorage Feb. 3-7, 2020.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com

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