Halibut quotas higher than expected


The International Pacific Halibut Commission surprised most industry watchers by veering far off course from the staff recommendations for the 2013 halibut quotas and not implementing an expected 30 percent cut statewide. 

The staff had recommended an overall quota of 22.55 million pounds, including the West Coast and British Columbia, with a quota for Alaska waters of 17.26 million pounds. That is down from an overall quota of 33.54 million pounds in 2012 and a state-wide quota of 25.51 million pounds.

Instead, the commissioners voted 5-1 to set the overall quota at 31.03 million pounds, with the quota in Alaska waters at 23 million pounds for 2013.

That quota is closest to the one recommended by the Conference Board, a group made up mostly of harvesters, and reflects an IPHC philosophy of taking socio-economic impacts of quota changes into account.

The breakdown by area is:

• Area 2A, West Coast: 990,000 pounds, virtually the same as the 2012 quota of 989,000 pounds. The staff recommendation was 710,000 pounds.

• Area 2B, British Columbia: 7.04 million pounds, same as 2012. The staff recommendation was 4.58 million pounds.

• Area 2C, Southeast Alaska: 2.97 million pounds, up 13 percent from the 2012 quota of 2.62 million pounds. The staff recommendation was the same, 2.97 million pounds.

• Area 3A, central Gulf of Alaska, including Homer: 11.03 million pounds, down 7 percent from the 2012 quota of 11.92 million pounds. The staff recommendation was 9.24 million pounds.

• Area 3B, western Gulf of Alaska: 4.29 million pounds, down 15 percent from the 2012 quota of 5.07 million pounds. The staff recommendation was 2.73 million pounds.

• Area 4A, eastern Aleutian Islands: 1.33 million pounds, down 15 percent from the 2012 quota of 1.57 million pounds. The staff recommendation was 850,000 pounds.

• Area 4B, western Aleutian Islands: 1.45 million pounds, down 22 percent from the 2012 quota of 1.87 million pounds. The staff recommendation was 620,000 pounds.

• Areas 4CDE, Bering Sea and Pribilof Islands: 1.93 million pounds, down 22 percent from the 2012 quota of 2.47 million pounds. The staff recommendation was 850,000 pounds.

The total overall quota for 2013 represents a drop of 7 percent, with the statewide drop coming to 10 percent. It also represents a statewide drop of more than 60 percent in the past 10 years.

During the five days of meetings in Vancouver, B.C., observers said it appeared from staff presentations that the case was being made for the steeper cuts, with much of the discussion centering around fixing the so-called “retrospective bias,” which is an underestimation of the total biomass removals occurring over the past decade or so, meaning the quota has been set at an unsustainable level. 

Basically, fish the IPHC thought would be available for harvest were not, and because of years of cumulative overestimation, IPHC staff biologists said last year that in order to have a sustainable fishery, the halibut quota may need to be cut much deeper, perhaps to as little as 11 million pounds in Alaska waters. 

Ian Stewart, quantitative scientist and forecaster for the IPHC, said that the science was improving, but the results were not encouraging.

“We’ve been able to make some major improvements to this year’s stock assessment of Pacific halibut,” he said. “We’ve been able to address the retrospective bias that has been plaguing this assessment for several years running, and we’ve made some technical improvements including the way in which we conduct the forecasts to accommodate the recent trends we’ve seen in size, and we’ve also been able to address uncertainly via a decision-making table. 

“The bad news,” he continued, “is that in addressing this retrospective bias, we’ve ended up with stock estimates that are substantially smaller than what we’ve seen (recently). The CEY (Constant Exploitation Yield) models coming out of this year are roughly 30 percent less than what we’ve seen for last year and the year before.” 

Those models did not translate into drastic cuts to the quota.

Buck Laukitis, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association and owner of the fishing vessel Lucky Dove, expressed surprise and disappointment at the IPHC’s lack of ability to make the tough calls.

“I’m kind of shocked that the quotas didn’t go down more,” he said. “Last year, they had what they called the ‘Armageddon numbers,’ that it could get this bad (11 million pounds), and they didn’t take (the cuts). For some of us, the quota would have gone down 50 and 60 percent, and that’s probably what needed to happen. We’ve got to get under this thing so we can start bouncing back.”

He pointed to what has happened in Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, which has suffered through drastic cuts, losing nearly 80 percent over five years. However, things turned around in 2011, and their quota is seeing gradual increases.

Laukitis said that management of the fishery has become too much process and not enough science.

Because all halibut fishermen are paying for that science through a landing tax, Laukitis scratched his head over why the science was not used first and foremost in making decisions about quota size.

“Where else do you not just take the science?” he said. “Either it’s the best science in the world and you take the (recommended) quotas, or why are you even doing all the setline surveys and all this work, and then not taking it?”

Laukitis said if halibut were a federal fishery managed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council under the rules of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it would most likely be under a 10-year rebuilding plan for over-fished fisheries.

“My kids have quota, I’ve got quota, none of us want to catch less fish and make less money, but it just doesn’t seem like we’re doing the right thing by the resource.”

Laukitis said that the worst thing that could happen by cutting the quota more than was necessary in any given year was that it would be able to go back up the following year.

He suggested that future generations would not look kindly upon current management strategies.

“There’s going to be a history written about this resource,” he said, “and they’re going to look back at what happened, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

The halibut season opens March 23, closes Nov. 7.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.