Fish Factor: Lower catch limits expected for Pacific halibut

Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Sept. 12, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Sept. 12, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Sept. 12, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Sept. 12, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Lower catches for Pacific halibut are in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

That was the message from the International Pacific Halibut Commission at its meeting Nov. 27-28 in Seattle. The IPHC oversees halibut stock research and sets catch limits for nine fishing regions ranging from Northern California and British Columbia to the Bering Sea.

There are fewer of the prized flatfish (down 4 percent), they weigh less (down 5 percent) and no big pulses appear to be coming into the stock was the grim summary of the 2019 halibut fishery and the results of summer long surveys at nearly 1,370 fishing stations, including 89 added to the Central Gulf of Alaska, the biggest halibut fishing hole.

The numbers of spawning halibut also appeared to continue their decline over the past year, said IPHC lead scientist Ian Stewart.

“This has been predicted for several years. This is projected to continue for all 2020 TCEYs greater than approximately 18.4 million pounds,” Stewart said. “It’s essentially the breakeven point over the next three years. So, we’re looking at a period of relatively low productivity for the Pacific halibut stock over the next three years.”

Total constant exploitation yield (TCEY) is the amount of removals of halibut over 26 inches for commercial, recreational, sports charter, subsistence and bycatch in other fisheries. For 2019, the coastwide TCEY was 38.61 million pounds.

Stewart added that more female fish are showing up in the stock and lower halibut yields will be necessary to “reduce higher fishing intensity.”

“The primary driver behind that has been the addition of new information about the sex ratio of the commercial fishery catch that has indicated that we’ve probably been fishing this stock harder than we thought, historically,” he said.

Fishing the stock harder includes the halibut taken as bycatch in other fisheries.

“The non-directed discards, meaning bycatch, was up from a little over 6 million pounds to a little over 6.4 million pounds,” Stewart said.

In the Bering Sea, for example, there is a fixed cap totaling 7.73 million pounds of halibut allowed to be taken as bycatch for trawlers, longliners and pot boats targeting other fish, with most going to trawlers. The cap stays the same, regardless of changes in the halibut stock.

This year, after four years of analyses and deliberation, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council began moving towards a new “abundance based” management plan that would tie bycatch levels to the health of the halibut stock as determined by annual surveys. (Prior to that, the issue had not been discussed for 20 years.)

Meanwhile, bycatch allowances, combined with new rules in setting halibut catch limits, could mean Bering Sea communities get squeezed out of the upcoming fishery.

“Last year the IPHC 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,” said Peggy Parker, director of the Halibut Association of North America and contributor to

“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 bycatch increased this year, which threw last year’s projections off and will likely result in lower catches to that area next year,” Parker added. “Having fixed minimum allocations to Area 2A and 2B (B.C.) 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 a declining stock where Alaska becomes the only place with wiggle room.” 

It’s déjà vu for Jeff Kauffman of St. Paul where emergency measures were implemented in 2015 to enable a halibut fishery to open in the region and fishermen’s catch limits were slashed to half a million pounds. 

“There has been a de facto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries,” he said at the time. “Conservation of the stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen.”

The NPFMC will set halibut bycatch limits for 2020 during its Dec. 2-10 meeting in Anchorage. The IPHC will reveal the catch limits for the halibut fishery during its annual meeting Feb. 3-7, also in Anchorage. 

Fish watch

The Pacific halibut fishery ended on Nov.14 amidst little fanfare. Most dock prices ticked up during the eight-month fishery, hovering in the $5 to $6 per pound range, likely due to bad weather hampering landings of competing halibut from Canada. 

“Their hurricanes and everything may have disrupted some of the fisheries there and allowed some of the product from Alaska to make it into those higher end East Coast markets. So we got a little better price,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits at Homer.

Better dock prices have not boosted the market for halibut quota shares, which are down by a third or more from sky-high levels two years ago and appear to have stabilized. Shares in Southeast, for example, that topped $70 per pound are now in the $55 range or less. In the Central Gulf, halibut IFQs are at around $45 a pound.

“For the last 15 years or so the resource has been in general decline. There have been some minor increases over the years, but mostly the trend has been downward,” Bowen said. “I think folks are kind of tired of buying something that gets cut the next year and is worth less. They’re buying an asset that’s declining in value. Many times, over the last few years folks have thought that this must be the bottom and it would be a great time to buy — get in and ride it back up, and that hasn’t happened.”

King crab

The 2019 Bristol Bay red kingcrab fishery ended last week with a catch of just under 3.8 million pounds. Crabbers averaged 15.6 crabs per pot pull, the lowest since 2005, and down from 20 crab in the last two seasons. The crabs were hefty, weighing 7.14 pounds on average, the highest since 1973.

That’s cause for concern, said Ethan Nichols, assistant area manager for the Bering Sea region for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“We’ve seen average weight increasing for several years now. We think we are fishing on the same group of adult male crab who are a year older and heavier,” he told KUCB in Unalaska, adding that not many small crabs are recruiting into the fishery. “If we had a better mix of small crab, we would see a lower average weight. What is coming in is mostly large older males.”

Symphony seafood winners

A fish and chips meal kit featuring Alaska cod was the fan favorite in the first round of the Alaska Symphony of Seafoods competition held during Pacific Marine Expo. 

The snappy kit by Alaskan Leader Seafoods won the coveted Seattle People’s Choice Award. 

“It’s really a lot of fun. You’ve got the French fries, the batter, the panko and the fish, which of course is Alaska cod,” said Keith Singleton, head of the value-added division.

In all, 20 new Alaska seafood products debuted at the expo contest. The event, hosted for 27 years by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, showcases a diverse array of innovative items and levels the playing field between major companies and small “mom and pops.”

Other first place winners selected by a panel of judges:

  • In the retail category, it was Bullwhip Kelp Salsa by Juneau-based Barnacle Seafoods.
  • Southern Style Alaska Wild Wings made from Alaska pollock by High Liner Foods of Canada took top honors in Food Service.
  • In the Beyond the Plate Category, Juneau-based WILD by Nature’s Alaskan Fin Fish Earrings won first place. That category was added four years ago to open doors for new things made from seafood byproducts.

“It can be anything,” said Julie Decker, AFDF executive director. “Things that are edible such as fish oil capsules, or nonedible things such as salmon leather wallets.”

Pet treats from Drool Central, an Anchorage “mum and pup barkery,” could be among more winners to be announced on Feb. 24 at the annual Symphony of Seafood and UFA Legislative bash in Juneau.That and other entries such as kelp pickles, smoked octopus and blueberry cured gravlax are vying for second and third place awards. The overall grand prize winner also will be named at the Juneau event.

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