Halibut catch limits released

Southeast commercial fishermen allotted 4.4 million pounds

Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2010

Commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska will be allowed to take 4.4 million pounds of halibut this year, the international commission that manages the fishery announced Friday.

The decision by the International Pacific Halibut Commission represents an increase of about 700,000 pounds over staff recommendations, but is still a reduction from last year's catch.

Commercial fishermen had been facing a 26 percent cut.

"Overall I would say that most guys are probably pleased they didn't get as large of a cut as they were expecting," Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance Executive Director Kathy Hansen said.

That's true, but there's also concern for a sustainable fishery, Juneau fisherman Chris Knight said.

"I'm hopeful that ... catch limits continue to provide for a sustainable harvest of the halibut resource," Knight said. "We can't afford further cuts in the future; otherwise the industry will cease to exist."

The Southeast commercial fleet's allowable catch has gone down by more than half in five years, when the catch hovered around 10 million pounds.

At the same time, the amount of halibut caught by guided sport fishermen went up as the charter industry grew by leaps and bounds.

The IPHC, made up of three government-appointed commissioners from the United States and Canada, announced the catch limits Friday at an annual meeting in Seattle.

The commission sets catch limits for the fishery and the commercial sector, but estimates for the charter fleet are made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The charter fleet's catch has been underestimated for several years running, resulting in more halibut pulled out of the water than scientists say is good for the fishery.

The commercial quota is set by subtracting uses such as sport, subsistence and "bycatch" from the amount of fish scientists think should be harvested to sustain a healthy fishery.

Bycatch refers to species of fish accidentally caught during fishing operations. It also was cited as a Southeast concern at this year's meeting.

The commissioners voted 5-1 on the catch limits Friday.

The decision to raise the commercial catch above staff recommendations came as a surprise, Juneau Charter Boat Association Spokesman Richard Yamada said.

The group had asked the commission to estimate the Southeast charter fleet's catch at 1.3 million pounds instead of 788,000.

The commissioners did not meet their request.

The higher number is what the charter fleet fished last year, and is more realistic, Yamada said.

While many commercial fishermen have paid for their quota and watched its value go down in recent years, charter operators like Yamada say the system is broken because charters, which entered the fishery late, were never allotted enough fish.

Scientists, meanwhile, recommend fishermen take about 20 percent of the fish in the ocean every season to sustain a healthy fishery. In Southeast it has been as high as 45 percent in recent years, according to fishery managers.

The charter fleet this year faces a new limited-entry program meant to reduce the number of guides, and for the second year a one-fish bag limit has been set.

IPHC commissioners directed staff this week to evaluate actions they could take next year if the new measures to curb growth in the charter sector don't work.

The commercial halibut season will open March 6, one week early, and run through Nov. 15.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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