On November 29th, the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) staff presented the 2016 stock assessment results and the 2017 halibut catch limit decision table. Stock assessment results show a stable or slightly increasing spawning biomass. A few highlights include: Area 3A and 3B stocks are recovering; bycatch in the Bering Sea is down by .44 million pounds (allowing for an increased catch limit in Area 4CDE); and Area 2C survey Weight Per Unit Effort is again the highest across the entire fishery. Despite these improvements, or in some ways because of these improvements, the staff “blue line” catch limits for Areas 2B and 2C are down from last year. The reason for the Area 2 decrease is that coastwide fishery catch limits are down slightly from last year and the survey, which determines apportionment between areas, found more fish relative to last year in Areas 3A and 3B than in Areas 2B and 2C. In other words, Area 2 gets a smaller percentage of the total as other areas improve. This counter-intuitive result raised questions and concerns from both Canada and the U.S.; expect more discussion of this apportionment issue at the annual meeting. REMEMBER—the IPHC will meet in January to consider the decision table and establish catch limits.
After reviewing the decision tables, IPHC Commissioners discussed rebuilding objectives for the halibut fishery and noticed their intent to move away from the outdated and mostly ignored existing harvest policy (which results in the blue line catch limits) and toward a Spawning Potential Ratio approach (explained in Halibut article on Page X). Adopting an SPR approach and Identifying an appropriate SPR, or level of fishing intensity, will take additional work and input from IPHC staff and advisory bodies, but this notice from the Commission provides a road map toward a new harvest policy.
The IPHC will be accepting catch limit proposals and comments until December 31st. The IPHC Annual Meeting will be held in Victoria, BC January 23-27th 2017.