Halibut commission recommends further Area 2C quota cuts

Posted: Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The International Pacific Halibut Commission has made preliminary staff recommendations of again lowering halibut quotas in 2011, but local fishing representatives see this as a dangerous move.

The preliminary staff recommendation for Area 2C, the area the majority of Juneau fisheries collect from, is 2.33 million pounds. This same area's 2010 catch limit was 4.4 million pounds.

Officials from both the catching and receiving ends of fishing see this as bad news.

"It's a total disaster," said Chris Knight, executive director of United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters. Knight is also a commercial fisherman out of Juneau and works with halibut.

"You've got too many people trying to take out from the system, and only people you can really take it from is us," he said, explaining that such cuts in quotas can come from a mixture of state, council, IPHC and other decisions, making it difficult to understand exactly why such cuts are made. He said it is indicative of structural problems within the IPHC.

What he knows for sure is that as long as cuts are made, halibut money will get harder to acquire. He said because this recommendation is about 20 percent what it was just five years ago, many fishermen have large loans used to purchase halibut quota and now the catch totals needed to pay those loans are difficult to come by.

Area 2C's quota peaked in 2005 at 10.93 million pounds.

Mike Erickson, chief executive officer of Alaska Glacier Seafoods, also said fishermen he's dealt with have paid a substantial price for their quotas. He said not only will they not be able to pay it back with halibut, but also may not want to purchase additional quotas.

He said that the Area 2C cuts plus those in Area 3A, where it also gets some fish from, will have a big negative impact on the company and employees because there will be less work to do. Area 3A's 2011 recommendation is 14.36 million pounds as opposed to this year's 19.99 million pound limit.

Erickson said one of the worst parts about the cut is the resulting confusion. He said a new model for determining the catch limits was put in place a few years ago and that has affected recommendations. However, like Knight, he is not sure exactly what causes these recommendations.

"We want to be more informed," said Erickson.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission did not return requests for comment by press time Monday.

Its website states, "For Area 2C the difference in the catch limit recommendation between 2010 and 2011 is primarily the result of the application of the SUFullD harvest adjustment" The site states this refers to how the previous "Slow Up-Fast Down" harvest policy was changed to a Slow Up-Full Down" one to "achieve the necessary reductions in harvest rate and promote increases in exploitable biomass."

Erickson said, adding to the confusion, reports he's received from fishermen indicate a lot of good halibut fishing in Area 2C. He said it's one thing if boats aren't doing well, but that hasn't been his observation.

"Fishermen are kind of first line of what's going on out there and they stated there's more fish this year than in the past year."

He said that while fishermen's observations are certainly not a basis for scientific analysis, their reports do indicate a strong biomass, even if it is only speculative.

On a related note, he said, "The worst thing you can do to a market is instability, and that's what we've got. The supply is always in question."

Knight said he feels the model's shift, as well as the politics behind it, are not enough of an explanation. He pointed out Area 2C shares a coastline with Canada but the quota for that area, Area 2B, has a recommendation for increasing.

"The models do not reflect adequately that anomaly" he said.

Knight isn't the only fisherman who feels that way. Kathy Hansen, executive director of Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, said many of the organization's members are "still reeling" from the news.

"For all of us, it's a shock," she said.

Hansen said she feels the lowered quota will make it difficult for many Juneau fishermen to hang on to what they have and may even bankrupt some.

"Unfortunately, we have to catch less fish, but that doesn't mean our loan payments get reduced at the same time," Hansen said.

She said there are a number of reasons the quota changes, including charter fleets that have gone over their guideline harvest levels in years past, which can affect fishing stock levels.

She said halibut fishing differs within the areas so while the stocks are good for some in Area 2C, it may go down for others.

Erickson said 2.33 million pounds is only a preliminary staff recommendation and does not necessarily mean the changes will occur.

However, he said he feels because fishermen may want or need to cut back on halibut investments, it's important for both fishermen and fisheries to keep diversity in their products. He said this is especially important for halibut, as few can make it on that product alone.

"This company was somewhat built off halibut as its core, and that's just not the case anymore," he said.

Hanson agreed with this, saying more have to rely on salmon incomes.

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

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