IPHC proposes slashing quotas in Area 2C

Measure sets commercial halibut limit set at 2.33 million pounds, a 47% drop

Posted: Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The International Pacific Halibut Commission has proposed lowering the overall U.S. and Canadian commercial halibut quotas. These cuts would be the most severe in Area 2C where the majority of Southeast Alaska fishermen bring in their stocks.

The commercial quota would be cut 47 percent, from 4.4 million pounds to 2.33 million pounds. This cut is the amount predicted in the commission’s preliminary estimate in December. A press release from the Halibut Coalition states this is in response to biological concerns from the West Coast to the Bering Sea.

However, the final say on the quotas will be up to government officials in the United States and Canada.

“It’s important to recognize these are recommendations to the parent governments and still must be accepted by the two governments,” IPHC Executive Director Bruce Leaman said.

Leaman said the decision to recommend lower limits was difficult, but necessary to rebuild stocks.

He hopes the U.S. and Canada will decide on these issues before the fishery opens on March 12.

“Previously, we’ve taken smaller bites, but since looking at trajectory stocks, our previous cuts haven’t gotten to our target rates in 2C,” he said.

IPHC has a target harvest rate of 21.5 percent for Area 2C. Leaman said there has been a much higher percentage in past years, which must be corrected.

“Historically the target rates have averaged around 20 percent, but the realized harvest rates were much higher because catch limits were higher than the stocks could sustain.”

In the release, Halibut Coalition President Linda Behnken said, “We are deeply concerned about the financial impacts of this quota reduction on small family owned businesses though out Alaska. Cumulative quota reductions mean Southeast fishermen will only be allowed to harvest 27 percent of what they harvested in 2007. Southcentral halibut fishermen have also taken a cut. These quota reductions come at a time when the Southeast guided sport industry has exceeded its guideline harvest level (GHL) every year since 2004 for a cumulative overage of 3.3 million pounds. The quota reductions are painful, but commercial fishermen will respect the limits that have been set. We expect the guided sport industry to do the same. Everyone has to share in conserving and rebuilding the resource. ”

The restrictions have been opposed by commercial and charter fleets since the preliminary numbers were released. This reduction will result in an 80 percent cut within the last 6 years for many commercial fishermen, said Chris Knight, executive director of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters’ Association.

Knight said while the modeling that has gone into the numbers is important to increase the stock health, it can be disastrous to those on the boats.

“The cuts this year are going to be absolutely detrimental to our industry,” he said, explaining this industry is unique in that many from the fleets have to take out loans to buy into the halibut quotas and will not be able to repay them now. He said the limits will force several into bankruptcy, and the damage goes beyond the fishermen.

“It’s going to hurt the raw fish taxes and every community receives from those taxes,” he said. “This is going to be a huge blow to all those communities and, sadly, the action by the IPHC is still going down.”

Knight said the modeling, while serving a purpose, is faulty in that it tries to encapsulate data that doesn’t exist from unguided professionals in Southeast commercial lodges.

“It’s important to recognize the commission wanted to twin that lower catch limit with some controls,” Leaman said of the size limits. “Because cuts are so severe we felt everyone has to restrict the size in charter fisheries to achieve some much lower limits than in the past.”

As part of such controls, IPHC also took action to restrict the size in charter fishing to help achieve lower harvest limits than in the past. It is imposing a 37-inch maximum size limit on guided sport halibut in the Southeast.

The release states the new size limit does not apply to non-guided anglers in the Southeast nor to guided or non-guided fishermen in other areas of Alaska.

Tom Dawson of Three Eagle Charters in Juneau said the new charter limit has already taken a negative toll.

“For me, as a charter operator, It’s taken a big bite right out of my business,” Dawson said. “I haven’t gotten a single booking for halibut.”

Dawson said those who call drop interest at hearing the new size limit. He said a charter out of Juneau is hard enough, as it requires having to travel farther out, so people who hear they can’t catch a 40-pounder or above get discouraged. He said a 37-inch halibut is around 23 pounds, less after filleting, so it doesn’t seem worth it to customers.

Dawson said he stays in contact with other Alaska charters and this seems to be happening in many areas.

The conclusion was reached at the IPHC annual meeting last week. IPHC states the cut comes from a decision at last year’s meeting to consider actions to control the 2011 charter harvest if a national catch share plan was not implemented for the 2011 season. The National Marine Fisheries Service has indicated it will not implement the catch share plan adopted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council until 2012. These limits and management options were analyzed as part of this plan to protect the fish resource’s health.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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