For the third year in a row, Southeast Alaska fishermen are faced with a cut in the halibut catch limit.
International Pacific Halibut Commission staff released draft recommendations last week for a 2009 catch of 4.47 million pounds, a 28 percent reduction from this year's 6.21 million pounds.
"There's no question that this is fairly painful right now," said Bruce Leaman, the commission's director.
The IPHC is recommending that the overall Pacific catch limit be 54.01 million pounds, down from this year's 60.40 million pounds. Commission staff are recommending smaller catch limits everywhere except in part of the Gulf of Alaska and the outer Aleutians, areas 3B and 4B.
That's if halibut commissioners officially approve the limits at their January meeting. U.S. and Canada fishery agencies each manage, allocate and enforce their fisheries - sport, charter, commercial and subsistence or tribal - to the catch levels recommended by the commission.
Last year, the commission's scientists changed how they assess the abundance of halibut, Leaman said. In general, they learned they'd been underestimating halibut abundance in western Alaska and overestimating it in the east, including Southeast, in the past decade. As a result, the eastern fisheries were overexploited.
Now the commission is correcting.
Leaman said he was optimistic that by about 2011 to 2015, as younger halibut begin to mature, fishery stocks may start to increase.
But next year, individual fishing quotas, the percentage of the catch owned by commercial fishermen, will translate into fewer fish and less money.
On top of that, halibut prices may go down next year, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
"People are not kicking the doors to buy halibut this year," said Mike Erickson of Alaska Glacier Seafoods Inc., a Juneau processor that this year processed less than half the halibut it did four years ago.
"How that will carry over to next year, I don't know. There's people who would feel lucky to make their house payment now, let alone eat a luxury food," he said.
With lower prices, less fish and high fuel prices, fishermen are facing hard times, Hansen said. Most have taken on debt to buy quota shares.
"Everybody's trying to sell," she said. "But even if they can find a buyer for the quota share, they can't sell it for enough to clear their debts."
A smaller halibut catch, people said, will also add extra heat to the fight over halibut allocation between Southeast's commercial fishermen and its charter operators.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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