Halibut catch limits may drop considerably in the coming years as the International Pacific Halibut Commission decides whether to use a new way of accounting that cuts in half the estimated number of halibut in Southeast Alaska.
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"If we are going to harvest the stock in accordance to abundance, then it would be half of what it used to be, according to stock assessments," said Bill Clark, senior stock assessment scientist with the halibut commission. The older model has been used for 15 to 20 years.
Such a change in catch limits would have "disastrous" effects on the economics of rural fishing communities in Southeast, said Patricia Phillips, based out of Pelican. Phillips has fished halibut for 25 years with her husband James.
Phillips said the commission has satellite data that shows there's an eastward migration of halibut. Because of halibut fishing in the Gulf of Alaska, the fish aren't making it all the way to Southeast, she said.
"The problem is that the fish is being intercepted before it can come to (Southeast Alaska)," Phillips said.
Instead of decreasing Southeast's quotas, the commission should decrease the amount that's fished in the Gulf, she said.
The new stock assessment model shows halibut in Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon account for 15 percent of the total stock, not the 30 percent reflected in past models.
"It was a real sea change in the scientific advice. It's understandable that the commission did not take it up right away. This has been a major change in the way we do business and it led to a substantial decrease in our estimate of relative abundance," Clark said.
Any change in the catch limits would be phased in gradually, he said.
It's unclear how the catch limits will be decided in 2008, said Jim Balsiger, the regional administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries in Alaska and a halibut commission member. Industry and other suggestions for the catch limit are accepted through Nov. 15.
"It's an open question as to how the halibut limits will be determined in 2008," Balsiger said. "The commissioners haven't met as a body to receive those reports. We have to go through that process to see if we will use that old method or the new method."
Although commission staff based its recommendations for the 2007 season on the new model, the commission used the old model to determine this year's catch limit. The commission is still waiting to hear conclusions of an independent review of the new method, according to the commission's Web site.
Southeast Alaska is "greatly affected" when the new model is applied, according to a report by Clark.
An independent review of the new model has been conducted by the Center for Independent Experts, a group from the University of Miami. Commission staff are still reviewing its findings before making them public.
With the season coming to an end on Nov. 15, Southeast Alaska halibut fishermen have brought in about 92.5 percent of their catch limit, or about 7.88 million pounds, according to Heather Gilroy at the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The total catch limit is 8.5 million pounds.
That's down 20 percent from the 10.6 million pounds allotted in 2006.
Prices for halibut are steadily rising, averaging between $3.75 and $4.50 per pound.