Halibut numbers keep going down

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

Commercial fisheries have had to continuously bring in less halibut over the last several years.

Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

The halibut catch limits set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, are significantly lower than they were this time in 2000. These smaller catch limits mean less fish can be brought into the local hatcheries.

"It's had a substantial impact on us. Our workers are getting less work," said Taku Fisheries vice president and general manager Eric Norman. Vessels for Taku have lost more than one-half of their Southeast Alaska quotas over the last six or seven years and processing operations may have gone down between 40 and 45 percent over the same period, he said.

Norman said Southeast quotas were at a high point it 2005 at 10.9 million pounds in 2005 and are currently at 4.4 million, about a 60 percent reduction.

Mike Erickson, chief executive officer of Alaska Glacier Seafoods, agrees with this. He said the lower limits have made things tough for his business as well.

"We're basically 50 percent of what we used to be," he said. "We don't have fish available from the places we'd like to."

Erickson said the lower quotas have a chain effect and impact everything from fishing crew sizes and season length to the transportation and fuel companies.

"It's not good for the processor and it's not good for the fishermen, that's for sure," he said.

Norman said having to bring in less fish affects the consumers in terms of increased halibut prices.

"We've seen doubled prices in six years," he said. "You see halibut going for two or three times the price of a New York steak."

IPHC quantitative scientist Steven Hare said there could be a number of reasons halibut prices have gone up, but the decreased catch limits could definitely be one of them.

Hare does stock assessment at IPHC and has been studying halibut patterns.

"There's been a downward trend in halibut catch limits over the last decade," he said.

While it is still in the midst of fishing season, the last IPHC landing report, dated Aug. 17, shows the Alaska catch limit at 42,360,000 pounds.

Alaska's halibut limit was 61,860,000 pounds on the report from Aug. 21, 2002.

"This has had some real impact," Norman said. "We've lost significant amounts from quotas so that's less poundage and less work for processing plants."

Hare explained that the catch limits are determined by the halibut exploitable biomass. The total biomass is the total number of halibut large enough to be caught while the exploitable biomass is the portion of this number that can be fished without affecting the environmental health of the total.

Hare said the exploitable biomass is determined from a variety of data collected from 15 commercial vessels at 1,200 fishing stations, plus fisheries and port samplers.

Hare said such data indicates decreased halibut sizes and populations in Alaska's fishing waters are factors going toward lowering catch limits.

As an illustration, he said the most commonly caught halibut 20 years ago was a 15-year-old female caught around Kodiak Island. It would likely weigh around 100 pounds.

"Now that same age fish caught in the same area is 70 percent smaller," he said.

Hare said there are a number of theories about this decrease that are being investigated.

He said a popular one is that the arrowtooth flounder has exploded in numbers around there, especially since the 1990s. He said this flounder goes unchecked and isn't fished so it presents a problem for halibut growth.

"They occupy the same ground as halibut so there's not enough food for halibut to thrive," he said. If this has affected halibut populations, this would account for the numbers dictating lower quotas, he said.

"So if the whole population is less then the biomass is less so the catch limit goes down," he said.

Hare said their biggest hope is that no halibut decreases are linked to a genetic factor in the fish themselves.

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

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