Kodiak fishermen find extra work through halibut research amid stock concern

Fisherman Terry Haines next to a container of bait. (Kayla Desroches/KMXT)

The Pacific halibut fishery may see a drop in stock over the next few years and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which regulates the fishery, uses surveys in Kodiak waters to collect data.

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The surveys also give local fishermen another job to tackle during the winter season, especially with the recent announcement of the 80 percent cut to Pacific cod quota in 2018.

Dock workers throw frozen fish through the hatch and into a large bin, and deckhands help transfer the headed and gutted bait into containers.

Terry Haines is a longtime Kodiak fisherman and both he and his son are deckhands on the trip. That means they set gear and bring in the fish so that the scientists on board can focus on the research.

“They can see how we harvest the resource and then we can see how they assess the stock and it’s kinda great to have that interaction between, I think, the harvester and the scientist.”

It’s also a good way to make some extra cash.

“With the cod stock the way it is, this is a pretty good job right now this winter, and it’s not during the regular longline season when I would  be doing regular halibut and black cod.”

Haines says this particular research trip focuses on the halibut reproductive cycle.

“So, we’re going out there and gathering both males and females, and they take all kinds of different samples, and they use those for their science. They take that back to the lab and they get it all figured out, and their scientists make an assessment based on this data that they’ve gathered from the field here.”

They need 30 males and 30 females, and they’ll head back to town whenever they catch the required

amount. Jorg Schmeisser, part-owner of the longliner, the Kema Sue, says the crew’s pay is the same no matter what. $350 a day for five days.

Walk away after the first day or the fifth, it’s still the same amount.

And he says, for him and his vessel, participating in the research has been essential.

“It’s become a viable chunk of the program here. Without it, I don’t know. I don’t know [if] we would have the boat even. It’s gotten pretty skinny on the catcher end of the longline year for us without a cod season now, and so this definitely helps.”

He says he does abundance surveys with IPHC in the summer and the rare survey in the winter, like this one. He says they fish halibut and black cod in the spring and fall, and used to fish Pacific cod in the winter time.

The reproductive study is one of a few projects IPHC is doing in Kodiak.

The commission’s Biological and Ecosystem Science Program manager, Josep Planas says they collect halibut samples at the beginning of each month.

“To basically understand reproductive progression and maturity in both males and females of Pacific halibut throughout their entire reproductive annual cycle and how maturity advances and progresses throughout the year.”

He says the project started a few months ago and is set to wrap up in August or September.

Planas mentions two other projects. One, which they completed in November, studied hook release techniques in the longline fishery to better understand the injury to fish and the effect on their survival rate.

The other study looks at halibut size.

“Those fish are getting smaller every year in certain areas, and we’re trying to understand whether growth plays a role in this decrease in size-at-age.”

According to an IPHC end of year assessment for 2017, Pacific halibut stock saw a steady decline between the late 1990s and about 2010 due to shrinking size-at-age and weaker recruitment strengths. A report from IPHC’s November meeting in Seattle, Washington, shows a high risk for stock decline over the next couple of years.

IPHC will discuss the decline and next steps at its upcoming meeting in Portland, Oregon later this month.