Alaska's total commercial halibut catch could dip 5 percent in 2006, but Southeast Alaska longliners probably won't feel the pinch.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission staff is recommending a total commercial catch of nearly 70 million pounds of halibut for 2006. That's about 3 million pounds less than the 2005 catch.
Longliners in Southeast Alaska's halibut fishing grounds - one of the most productive areas for Pacific halibut - wouldn't feel the brunt of the proposed reduction. Under the proposal, they would be allowed to catch roughly 10 million pounds in 2006. That's only 300,000 pounds less than they harvested in 2005.
That reduction is hardly noticeable to the region's fleet, according to Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
"If the price holds, everybody should have a really good season," Hansen said.
The 2005 season went very well. Dock prices for halibut in Juneau reached a historic high - nearly $4 per pound - during the final days of the season in mid-November.
The commission's final decision on 2006 catch limits will be made at its annual meeting Jan. 17-20 in Bellevue, Wash.
The commission does not set similar catch limits for halibut sport and subsistence fishermen.
Alaska is the only state that lacks a federal allocation scheme for dividing halibut between commercial fishermen and anglers, said Greg Williams, chief of the halibut commission's biological research program.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted in early December to rescind its original plan to regulate Alaska's halibut charter fleet with individual fishing quotas. Substitute proposals for regulating the fleet are now in development.
"It's something that we are a little disappointed in," Williams said Tuesday.
The main reason that the total pounds of fish caught by Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen will decline slightly in 2006 is the recent increase in the region's charter fleet and subsistence harvest, Williams said.
The charter fleet exceeded its federal guideline harvest level for halibut in 2004 by 22 percent. The International Pacific Halibut Commission doesn't automatically deduct 22 percent from commercial fishermen in 2006, but instead looks at the five-year trend, Williams said.
"That softens that 22 percent somewhat," Williams said.
The growth of the charter industry wasn't much of a factor along the western coast of Alaska, where the commercial catch limit could decline by more than 2 million pounds in 2006.
The commission's biologists recommended lower catches because they are worried about the long-term productivity of the fishery in that part of Alaska, Williams said.
Smaller numbers of young halibut are being caught in federal monitoring projects and on fishermen's hooks in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent years. It could be related to environmental factors that reduce survival of the young halibut in the ocean, Williams said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.