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By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
Commercial halibut fishermen coastwide will be watching to see how the International Pacific Halibut Commission sorts through a new range of options provided by IPHC staff for setting catch limits for 2013 during its annual meeting in January.
In a change from its practice in recent years, IPHC staff isn’t making specific recommendations for halibut-harvest limits along the U.S. West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska.
Instead, IPHC staff is providing a series of harvest options, accompanied by an assessment of each option’s impact on the halibut stock and harvest rates.
"What we're providing to the commissioners this year is, instead of sort-of fixed, one number that we had done previously, we are providing them with a sort-of risk-benefit table," said IPHC?Executive Director Bruce Leaman. "And in that table is a series of choices given particular risks and benefits, and it allows the commission to make their choices about what they consider to be the appropriate level of yield given the risks and benefits that might be associated with that."
One of the options — called the "Blue Line" — describes the harvest levels that would be in effect if the IPHC continues to apply its current harvest policy.
The Blue Line’s coastwide harvest limit would be 22.7 million pounds in 2013, down about 33 percent from 2012.
If the commissioners select the Blue Line limits, Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) would be the only region coastwide that would see an increase in its commercial harvest limit, rising from about 2.62 million pounds in 2012 to 3.12 million pounds next year.
Leaman emphasized that the Blue Line option is not intended as a staff recommendation.
"We're really trying to get away from the idea that it's a recommendation," he said. "What we're just simply saying that (the Blue Line represents) the application of our existing harvest policy — but it's only one of a number of choices that the commissioners could make."
In the range of other coastwide options presented by IPHC, Area 2C appears to have potental commercial harvest limits ranging from very low to about 5.81 million pounds, based on IPHC charts.
The IPHC analysis for halibut stocks also underwent changes this year to end a problem of a regular overestimation of stocks.
"We spent a lot of time this year trying to sort out the problem, and I think we have done that," Leaman said.
Now, data from things like survey catch rates and commercial catch rate correlate better with the actual stock assessments.
"When we look now at what the stock assessment is saying, it’s very coherent with what the indices of abundance say," Leaman said.
The stock assessment — the IPHC’s estimate of the coastwide biomass of halibut — for 2013 is about 30 percent lower than last year at this time, according to Leaman.
He noted that the new stock assessment doesn’t mean there are fewer fish in the water, "it just means our estimate of the number of fish has changed."
Leaman acknowledged that the concept is a difficult to describe, especially because the IPHC has seen improvements in survey and commercial catch rates in some areas, paticularly Area 2.
Still, IPHC staff views the new stock assessment as being "much sounder" than it was in previous years.
"It doesn’t mean that the news is good, but I think we have more confidence in this number than we had in the past," Leaman said.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission will decide the harvest limits during its annual meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 24-27 in Anchorage.
In the meantime, a North Pacific Fishery Management Council process this week has been looking at making a recommendation regarding charter catch limits for halibut in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
"We’re asking for the status-quo," said Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.
As such, SEAGO wants the guided sport anglers’ "reverse-slot" limits for halibut that was in effect for 2012 to return next year.
Charter anglers were allowed to harvest halibut with lengths of less than or equal to 45 inches, or 68 inches and greater.
The 2012 charter catch in Southeast Alaska came in at about 642,300 pounds, about 31 percent below the 931,000-pound guideline harvest level, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Based on the above-mentioned Blue Line overall harvest level, the 2013 GHL for charter halibut in Southeast Alaska would be 788,000 pounds.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council Charter Management Implementation Committee this week recommended keeping the 2012 charter catch limits for Southeast and Southcentral Alaska in place for 2013, according to Hilyard.
The committee’s recommendation was approved unanimously by the NPFMC Advisory Panel on Friday, according to Hilyard. The full Council is scheduled to take up the issue Saturday.
The NPFMC’s final charter management recommendation will be forwarded to the IPHC for final approval during the January annual meeting, according to SEAGO.