Debate over halibut quotas expected to heat up

Jan 19, 2018

Halibut.
Credit Creative Commons photo by Ed Bierman

The International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, will set the total allowable catch for halibut along the West Coast next week. At its interim meeting back in November, IPHC scientists suggested slashing 2018’s catch by 24 percent for both commercial and charter operations, a reduction of about 7.5 million pounds. That potentially large cut is likely to lead to heated debate during the commission’s meeting in Portland.

IPHC scientists say fewer young halibut were found during fishing surveys along the coast last year, signaling a decline in the number of commercially harvestable fish over the next several years.  

If quotas are cut at the suggested level, it would be the largest cut in six years, a major blow for commercial fishermen.

“I'm looking at at least a 10-percent direct cut into my bottom line, and it's a painful,” Malcom Milne said, a Homer-based commercial fisherman and President of the North Pacific Fisheries Association.

But, Milne said despite this year’s numbers being hard to swallow, he thinks fishermen need to listen to the science.

“I'm going down to the meeting next week with a real conservative mind to it and hoping that the commissioners will take a conservative take on the quotas and cut them to where the recommendations are,” Milne explained. “But I'm just hoping we can take the cuts, take our medicine now and look towards rebuilding rather than maybe overharvest, maybe not and not being sure of it, and then paying the price down the road.”

But, next week’s meeting is likely to lead to a heated debate. Doug Bowen is a former halibut fisherman and works with Alaska Boats and Permits, a fishing broker in Homer.

Plenty of fishermen come through Bowen’s office and he’s been attending IPHC meetings for over 20 years. He said some fishermen disagree with the IPHC’s science, saying that fishing has been good over the past few years. But Bowen adds surveyors are bound to consistency, and can’t change their method year to year.

“But the fishermen have the ability to fish wherever they want to. So, if they’re not finding fish over here, they’re going to move over there and hopefully find them,” Bowen said. “That’s what we’re hearing from some of the fishermen is that they’re having better luck fishing deep, or maybe the water was too warm where the surveys were conducted. So, maybe the fish had moved off into cooler, deeper water. So, the survey results perhaps aren’t representative of what the actual health of the stock is.”

IPHC scientists say the reason commercial fishermen have not seen a decline yet is because the year classes that have seen the largest declines are still under the 32 inch minimum size limit and that quotas need to be reduced as those fish move into the commercial fishery.

Halibut quotas have been steadily falling since peaking in 2004 at about 76 million pounds, but the largest cuts came in 2011 and 2012 when the IPHC cut the catch by 18 percent both years.

Bowen said a lot fishermen thought that trend was coming to an end.

“The declining trends that we’ve been experiencing for the last 10 or 12 years in size-at-age, those trends seem to have been bottoming out,” Bowen said. “We did get a little bit of a catch increase last year here in the Gulf of Alaska, and I think most folks were optimistic things were improving.”

As to what the IPHC’s decision will be this year, that will have to be hashed out starting Monday when  commissioners kick off the discussion in Portland. The meeting will run through Jan. 26.