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Halibut harvests cut for 10th straight season

Posted: January 29, 2014 - 1:06am

SEATTLE — Halibut fishermen will see another year of cuts under catch limits adopted Jan. 17 at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting.

Alaska’s portion of the 2014 catch is about 19.7 million pounds, out of a coastwide catch of 27.5 million pounds.

The coastwide catch is about 10 percent less than 2013, marking 10 consecutive years of cuts. The 2013 limit was about 31.02 million pounds coastwide, and 23 million pounds in Alaska.

The commission, or IPHC, met in Seattle Jan. 13-17 to set the catch limits from Northern California to the Bering Sea and discuss other issues in the Pacific halibut fishery.

The six-member body is comprised of three representatives from America and three from Canada, and regulates halibut under the Pacific Halibut Treaty signed in 1923.

By regulatory area, the 2014 catch limits are as follows:

• 2A (Northern California-Washington): 960,000 pounds down from 990,000 pounds in 2013

• 2B (Canada): 6.85 million pounds, down from 7.04 million pounds in 2013

• 2C (Southeast Alaska): 4.16 million pounds, up from 2.97 million pounds in 2013

• 3A (Southcentral Alaska): 9.43 million pounds, down from 11.03 million pounds in 2013

• 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.84 million pounds, down from 4.29 million pounds in 2013

• 4A (Alaska Peninsula): 850,000 pounds, down from 1.33 million pounds in 2013

• 4B (Aleutian Islands): 1.14 million pounds, down from 1.45 million pounds in 2013

• 4CDE (Bering Sea): 1.285 million pounds, down from 1.93 million pounds in 2013

The limits all passed unanimously.

2014 will be the first year charter and commercial fishermen operate under a combined catch limit in Areas 2C and 3A, so the catch limits do not present as clear of a comparison for those areas.

The commercial catch for Area 3A is 7.317 million pounds. Guided recreational fishermen will be limited to 1.782 million pounds, including wastage, in that area.

For 2C, fishermen will see only a slightly increased catch compared to 2014, despite the 1.45 million pound catch limit increase. The commercial portion of the catch is 3.3 million pounds, while the charter catch will be 761,280 pounds.

Although the conference board, which is the advisory body that represents harvesters, had advocated for higher limits, some Alaska fishermen said they were happy to see the commission take a conservation-minded approach.

“While it’s economically painful in the short term, I’m glad to see that the commission took most of the recommended cuts,” said Homer fisherman Malcolm Milne, from the North Pacific Fisheries Association. “This will hopefully put us at the bottom and we can start rebuilding.”

The cuts are the result of declining exploitable halibut biomass, although the IPHC’s quantitative scientist, Ian Stewart, said it appeared that the stock was leveling out.

The cuts come at a time when halibut prices are low, and the overall value of the fishery has declined, which makes them particularly hard for fishermen.

Last year, halibut prices started low. The average ex-vessel price for the opening period of the season, which ended March 31, was $3.78 averaged across all Alaska landing ports. By the final period, which ended Nov. 30, the price averaged across all ports was $5.05. Those prices are based on the information NOAA Fisheries uses to calculate the cost recovery bills it sends to fishermen each year.

Those were down from 2012, when the March average for all areas was $6.29, and the final price in November for all areas was $5.66 per pound.

According to the same estimates, the dockside value of the 2013 fishery was $105 million, about $32 million less than the 2012 value.

Alaska fishermen also left some fish in the water last year, taking about 96 percent of the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, catch in 2013. IFQ holders are allowed to roll as much as 10 percent of their quota into the following year.

This year, the halibut season will run from March 8 to Nov. 7 for the commercial IFQ fisheries.

That’s shorter than the season the Conference Board recommended, but longer than the Processor Advisory Group had requested. The CB suggested March 8 to Nov. 15.

The PAG recommended the season run from March 22 to Oct. 31. Those dates would allow some sales of halibut already in the freezer before the season opened, and end with plenty of time to market halibut before American Thanksgiving.

The later start date was also meant to allow processors to go to the Boston Seafood Show before the season began, according to PAG Chair Tom McLaughlin.

The commission, however, selected the middle length, noting that it did want to get the fishery closed before the conflict with Thanksgiving marketing began.

Overall, the total 2014 limit is slightly higher than the blue line preliminary estimate released in December that couples the IPHC’s harvest policy with the current stock status.

Commissioners noted, however, that the final limit was within the range presented by IPHC staff in its decision table.

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