Here's an article I wrote for the February issue of Pacific Fishing magazine, just now hitting the streets. Deckboss invites your comments.
The big story on halibut: small fish, small quota
By Wesley Loy
For Pacific Fishing
Halibut fishermen are facing a big cut in the coastwide catch limit this year, and nowhere is the pain more acute than in Southeast Alaska (Area 2C).
The scientific staff of the International Pacific Halibut Commission has recommended a coastwide catch limit of 41.02 million pounds, a 19 percent reduction from the 2010 limit. The commission, comprised of three U.S. and three Canadian members, was to consider the recommendation at its annual meeting Jan. 25-28 in Victoria, British Columbia.
For Area 2C, the IPHC staff recommended a catch limit of 2.33 million pounds, a 47 percent cut. Longliners in the region have suffered annual cuts since 2005, when the limit was 10.93 million pounds.
The staff also recommended a 28 percent cut, to 14.36 million pounds, for Southcentral Alaska (Area 3A). The area is the top producer of Pacific halibut.
So what's behind these deep cuts? Have we overfished halibut? Is the stock collapsing?
The problem is fish size, not overharvest or a crash, says Bruce Leaman, IPHC executive director.
"There's lots and lots of fish around," he says. "They're just small."
Halibut, especially in the central Gulf of Alaska, are in a period of very slow growth. A fish that used to reach 100 pounds at age 15 today weighs around 35 pounds, Leaman says.
This obviously has huge implications for the catch limit, which is based not on numbers of fish but on biomass.
Scientists believe the slow growth rate is due primarily to competition for food between halibut and another abundant flatfish in the Gulf, the arrowtooth flounder, Leaman says.
The outlook for halibut isn't entirely gloomy.
For one thing, we've endured periods of small fish before, Leaman says.
Another positive is the very strong recruitment coming into the fishery coastwide, though the low growth rate diminishes any increase in the biomass, he says.
As for Area 2C, the good news is that the biomass looks to be stabilizing, Leaman says. To encourage the recovery, the IPHC scientific staff suggested a more stringent harvest policy, which accounts for the sharply lower catch limit recommendation.
Of course, the commissioners don't have to follow the staff advice as they weigh other considerations such as the hardship felt among commercial fishermen, many of whom have invested in costly fishing quotas.
In fact, for 2010 the staff recommended a catch limit of 3.71 million pounds for Area 2C but the commission bumped it up to 4.4 million.