Halibut commission boosts catch limits for most of the coast

IPHC staff and commissioners meet at Juneau’s Centennial Hall (Photo from IPHC Facebook page)
IPHC staff and commissioners meet at Juneau’s Centennial Hall (Photo from IPHC Facebook page)

The International Pacific Halibut Commission Friday approved an increase in halibut catch limits for most of the coast.

The joint U.S. and Canadian body oversees management of the prized bottom fish from California to Alaska. The commission held its annual meeting in Juneau this week.

Commissioners approved a coast-wide catch of 29,890,000 pounds for 2016. That’s an increase of 2.2 percent from last year’s limits.

Commissioner chair Jim Balsiger of Juneau said the decisions were not easy to make. “But all in all I think it was a really good meeting,” Balsiger said. Since, first time in the last few years that things are relatively optimistic in the stocks, first time in the last few years we’ve seen a fairly significant decrease in bycatch. The discussions focused quite a bit, both in the public and in our executive sessions about the trade offs we have to make between rebuilding the stocks and capturing some revenue in the fisheries now when things look a little bit better. And I’m happy where we ended up so I think it was a good meeting.”

In area 2C, Southeast Alaska, the commission approved a combined commercial and charter catch of 4,950,000 pounds, an increase of six percent from last year.

British Columbia, area 2B, was approved for 7.3 million pounds, an increase of over four percent.

In area 3A, the central Gulf, the commission approved a combined commercial and charter catch limit of 9.6 million pounds. That’s a decrease of a half million pounds, or five percent, from last year. The Commission also adopted catch-share plans for Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf that impact the number and size of halibut that charter anglers can keep.

Overall the commission approved catch limits above the IPHC staff’s “blue line” numbers. Those represent long-standing harvest percentages applied to the estimated legal-sized halibut for each regulatory area.

Commissioner Jeff Kauffman of St. Paul noted the overall decision was about 12 percent, or 3.2 million pounds above that “blue-line” number. “To let you know where most of those increases came from, about 2.5 million pounds out of the 3.2 million pound increase above the blue line came from area 2, an area that I think we have a lot of confidence in, an area that’s responded very well to the cuts that we’ve all experienced over the last decade or so and about 660,000 pounds of the increase above the blue line came from areas 3A and west, areas that we have I think more concern about,” Kauffman explained. “So the bulk of the allocation above the blue line came from area 2 and about 660,000 pounds of that came from area 3A and west.” Area 2 stretches from Southeast Alaska to California.

For most of the coast, commissioners approved a season start date of March 19th and end date of November 7th.

The catch limit for 3B was set at 2.71 million pounds. Area 4A was set at 1.39 million, area 4B was set at 1.14 million and area 4CDE was set at 1.66 million.

In 2C, the catch is broken down as 3.9 million pounds for the commercial long-line fleet and just over 900,000 pounds for the charter fleet. In area 3A, that split is 7.3 million pounds for commercial fishermen and just over 1.8 million for the charter fleet.

Commissioners did not approve any change to the size of halibut that can be kept in the commercial fishery. Charter bag limits are the same, although charter fishermen in Southeast get an extra inch on smaller keeper halibut this year, up to 43 inches.

The commission voted to approve long-line pot gear as legal gear for halibut, in areas where the National Marine Fisheries Service already allows pots in the sablefish fishery. That will allow commercial boats fishing for black cod to keep halibut caught in pots in the Gulf of Alaska. That change will be reviewed by the IPHC in three years.

Commissioners thanked outgoing director Bruce Leaman for his work. He’s been with the IPHC since 1997 and is turning over the reigns this August to David Wilson. Wilson has worked in Indian Ocean tuna management and with fisheries in Australia.