2018 catch limits can be found on the IPHC website here. The IPHC staff have described the halibut biomass as below the historic average but stable or slightly increasing, although the increases do not extend to all areas. Surveyed weight per unit effort continues to improve in Area 2C but dropped from 2015 levels in Area 3A. Significant improvement in survey results were found in Area 4CDE, which is a big relief for the Bering Sea halibut fishermen, and Area 3B seems to be bouncing back from the bottom.
Despite some positive indicators, trawl bycatch of halibut continues to be a pressing issue on ALFA's agenda. Click here for a simplified breakdown of Abundance Based Halibut Bycatch Management. Please feel free to download and share.
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Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are among the largest of the flatfishes – the biggest reported reaching 8 feet in length and well over 500 pounds. Halibut are born swimming like salmon, with eyes on either side of their head, but one eye migrates to the right side as they grow and the little halibut begin swimming sideways, with both eyes on their "upper" body (almost always their right side)—by the time they are six months old. How cool is that?
Halibut eat a variety of fish, as well as octopus, crab and shrimp. Occasionally halibut are known to leave the bottom of the ocean and feed on higher swimming fish, such as salmon and herring.
Pacific halibut are managed through an international treaty between Canada and the United States. This treaty identifies the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) as the agency responsible for conserving the halibut stock. The IPHC conducts annual stock assessment surveys to determine abundance and sets catch limits for the fisheries that target halibut. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) is responsible for allocating halibut between Alaska user groups and manages the trawl fisheries that take halibut as bycatch, while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) develops and enforces regulations in U.S. waters. In sum, halibut management is complicated!
Alaska’s commercial halibut fishery is managed with an Individual Fishing Quota or IFQ system. IFQs allocate a percentage of the total allowable catch to individual fishermen; to enter the fisheries or increase catch a fishermen has to buy IFQs from another fishermen. IFQs allow halibut to be commercially harvested over nine-month season, which allows Americans to enjoy fresh halibut most of the year.
The abundance of halibut in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea has dropped significantly over the past decade, as has the growth rate of halibut. To conserve and rebuild stocks, the IPHC has reduced commercial catch limits accordingly. Because the IPHC cannot control halibut bycatch and the NPFMC has not taken meaningful action to reduce bycatch, the rate of bycatch has actually increased as halibut stocks have decreased. This has resulted in the bizarre situation where seven times as many halibut were killed and wasted as bycatch in the Bering Sea during 2014 than were taken in the directed halibut fishery. Because the Bering Sea serves as the nursery grounds for halibut that migrate as they get older to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond, this bycatch is primarily composed of juvenile fish. The five million pounds of juvenile halibut killed each year in the Bering Sea trawl fisheries threatens the future of the halibut resource. Bycatch also threatens the viability of Alaska’s coastal communities that depend halibut fishing.
This past June, ALFA and allies from across Alaska advocated for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea by 50 percent. Instead the Council reduced trawl bycatch by only 12%, but committed to taking additional steps to reduce bycatch in the future. ALFA is working hard to hold the Council to this commitment. We believe a new model for halibut management is needed, one that accurately captures the effect of halibut bycatch on the future of the halibut stock. We are working with other halibut groups to support new work by Drs. Martell (IPHC), Reimer and Carothers (University of Alaska) that would:
-Develop abundance-based approaches to halibut and halibut bycatch management, including a Mortality Per Recruit (MPR) approach proposed by Dr. Martell, which would reduce harvest rates across all sectors during times of low halibut abundance.
-Develop an integrated decision-making framework that addresses biological, economic, and social issues of the halibut fishery.
integrated model and mortality per recruit
IPHC scientist Dr. Steve Martell spent the summer stewing on the existing management model that ignores the size composition of halibut bycatch. Dr. Martell focused on the impact to the resource of juvenile halibut, or “recruits,” being killed at increasingly high rates as the abundance of halibut declines, which is exactly what happens under existing bycatch management. His research suggests that bycatch and wastage could threaten the stock with recruitment overfishing, since bycatch is tallied in pounds instead of numbers of fish and millions of recruits are killed before bycatch caps trigger closures. Because this concept seems critical to protecting the future of the halibut resource, ALFA is working with other industry groups to fund development of a model that accounts for mortality of recruits and integrates biological, economic and social impacts of halibut catch and bycatch on the resource, the fishing industry, and the fishing communities.
The combination of this new model and new approach could revolutionize halibut bycatch management, creating a new paradigm that incentivizes meaningful bycatch reductions on a sector specific basis. Expect to learn more about this project in the near future!
Photo credit ASMI/Joshua Roper Photography