Southeast Alaska's halibut fishing industry will face a lower catch limit again this season if recommendations made this month by the International Pacific Halibut Commission stand.
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A 28-percent drop in catch limits means commercial fishermen and processors would face hard times as the season opens in March. Last year brought a 20-percent drop, so the industry is facing a more than 40-percent decline in its allowed catch.
"It's definitely a blow," said Sitka Sound Seafoods plant manager Jon Hickman. "It means less product through the door, finding a way to become more efficient with less product."
Employees who work for the plant would receive fewer hours due to the lower catch, Hickman said. Halibut represents about 6 percent of the plant's product.
Southeast's commercial fishermen are hard-pressed to make ends meet under continued reductions in catch limits, but most see the long-term benefit of following good science, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, which represents 180 harvesters in the region.
"Like any fisherman, they don't like catch reductions ... but if science says we need a reduction, then we need a reduction," Hansen said.
The six-member halibut commission is responsible for protecting halibut stocks off the U.S. and Canadian coasts.
Its 2008 recommendation reduces catch limits in Southeast Alaska by 2.3 million pounds while raising them in areas located northwest of here, from Kodiak Island to the Aleutian Islands chain and further northwest to the Bering Sea.
The decision is influenced by a new way of accounting that looks at a larger picture in the fish stock.
For two decades, the organization weighed halibut stocks in small geographical areas called closed-area assessments. Its new model that assesses the stock as a single unit shows fewer fish and greater levels of migration than previously believed.
Some fishermen question the new science, saying halibut have always migrated, and the fewer number in Southeast Alaska is due to fishing in the Bearing Sea.
The halibut commission said in a prepared statement that it would use a "slow up, fast down" policy to manage the industry in the face of this new science. That means a rapid decrease in catch limits - which the Southeast industry is facing now - followed by a slow increase if annual harvests warrant it.
Studies concluded that Southeast harvests were too high in the past decade, the halibut commission said. In the long-term, a lower harvest now will help rebuild the stock and allow an increase in catch limits later.
The halibut commission is scheduled to finalize its recommendations Jan. 18 in Portland, Ore. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Commerce is expected to publish management rules and hear public comments before the commercial season opens in March.
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