The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which regulates halibut fisheries in U.S. and Canadian waters, heard a presentation on reducing or eliminating the minimum size limit for commercially caught halibut at its interim meeting in Seattle Wednesday. It’s estimated removing the limit would boost the total catch across all districts by about 4 percent, but commissioners and fishermen questioned whether the change would reduce prices at the docks.
Currently halibut 32 inches and under caught commercially are required to be thrown back. The limit, which was set at its current level in 1974, is supposed to ensure that young fish have a chance to spawn before they are harvested.
But in recent years, the average size of mature halibut has gone down, which has led some to ask whether the limit should be reduced or eliminated altogether.
Dr. Ian Stewart, a halibut commission scientist, looked into the idea, which was discussed most recently in 2015. He told commissioners that harvesting smaller fish may allow fishermen to retain more while protecting the spawning population.
“In the directed commercial fishery, the vast majority of fish that are handled and not retained are not retained because of the minimum size limit,” Stewart said.
He noted that allowing fishermen to retain smaller halibut may help them catch their quota faster, potentially reducing fuel and supply costs, but the impact of any change would vary by district.
Fishermen in the western Aleutians may see little benefit since they have continued pulling in larger fish in recent years while halibut in the central Gulf of Alaska seem to have shrunk, which may be more of an incentive for fishermen in that area.
Stewart estimates fish under 32 inches would account for about a quarter of the total catch in U.S. and Canadian waters if the commission ditched the limit entirely.
“This is important because we increased the yield by 4 percent, but now a quarter of that yield is coming from small fish,” Stewart said.
He quickly added the effect of that shift on the market is unknown.
“What’s the value of those fish going to be? Because if the value of the fish is going to be substantially below the value of an O32 fish (fish over 32 inches), that could result in a net loss to the fishery, even though there’s a small gain in the pounds getting to the dock.”
Bruce Gabrys had, a fisherman who targets halibut in the central and western Gulf, says that question has him leaning towards leaving the limit in place.
“The efficiencies gained by not having to spend as much time or run as much gear are relatively minor to what my personal anecdotal perception would be of the price difference,” he explained.
Gabrys fears that processors would change the entire pricing model for halibut and reduce the price per pound for larger fish.
Stewart told commissioners that there’s no way to know how the market would react to a change without testing the waters first, but said designing an experiment that accurately reflects the potential shift in each district would be difficult.
“I don’t see any logical unit that expands out to the total easily. Another approach we provided in the appendix was a short temporal window, perhaps try it for a year and see what happens,” Stewart explained, “but it could take several years for things like price and other things to stabilize. I think really that’s the big challenge.”
The commission didn’t make any decisions on the issue. It may take revisit the matter at its annual meeting in January, but it’s unclear what, if any changes will be made.