Fish Factor by Laine Welch

December 3, 2021

The Pacific halibut stock appears to be on an upswing and could result in increased catches for most regions in 2022.                           

At the interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission last week, scientists gave an overview of the summer setline survey that targets nearly 2,000 stations over three-months. The Pacific resource is modelled as a single stock extending from northern California to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, including all inside waters of the Strait of Georgia and the Salish Sea.


The survey results showed that coastwide combined numbers per setline increased by 17% from 2020 to 2021, reversing declines over the past four years. The coastwide weights of legal sized halibut (over 32 inches) also increased by 4%.


“We’re seeing some new trends this year,” said Dr. Ian Stewart, lead scientist for the IPHC which has managed the fishery for the U.S. and Canada since 1923.  “The first is we saw some improving trends from our survey that correspond to a shift both in the fish and in the fishery to younger fish.”


“The current stock reflects less productivity from the growth of fish that are already in the stock than from the numbers of fish that are recruiting into the stock, Stewart explained. “And this is the opposite of what we’ve seen over the last several years. The survey and the fishery have been accessing fish that were growing older. That’s now reversed for this year, reflecting this change from older fish to younger fish moving into the stock,” he said.


The younger fish are from a 2012 year class that will be increasingly important to future spawning projections.


“However, we are just now getting a more solid read on the magnitude of this year class and the information in the upcoming years will continue to improve our understanding of just how strong it is,” Stewart said.


Another trend is a shift in halibut distribution back to the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska (Region 3) where most of the stock occurs.


“That stock distribution is more similar to 10 to15 years ago than we’ve seen over the last several years,” Stewart said, adding that the survey showed a 28% increase in halibut abundance in that region.


“We started to see an increase in 2020 but it’s become much more pronounced leading up to a proportion of the stock in Region 3 that is larger than anything we’ve seen in almost a decade, and particularly in the Western Central Gulf,” he said.


Stewart called the 2021 survey “the most effective we have put on the water with the largest information content.”


The coastwide halibut catch limit for this year was increased by 6.5% to 39 million pounds for all users. For commercial fishermen in Alaska, the catch limit was set at 19.6 million pounds and all regions except for the Bering Sea saw increased catches.


IPHC data through November 1 show the total take by all users was nearing 38 million pounds.  Alaska commercial fishermen had taken 92% of their allotment and recreational catches were estimated at 7.6 million pounds, up by 43% from 2020. Halibut bycatch for this year was at 3.5 million pounds, down 23%.


The fishery was extended by one month this year from March 6 to December 7. Final halibut tallies for 2022 will be set at the IPHC annual meeting January 24-28 in Bellevue, WA.


Bycatch begone!  The IPHC sets annual halibut catch limits but federal fishery managers set Alaska’s bycatch caps in waters from three to 200 miles offshore.


Twenty-five state legislators have submitted a letter to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council asking them to choose an option that will reduce the more than four million pounds of halibut bycatch that can be taken by bottom trawlers in the Bering Sea.       


From Dec. 9-13, the NPFMC will continue its six years of discussion and “take final action” on a suite of options, one of which (Alternative 4) will remove the trawl fleet’s fixed cap and have them abide by the same rules as all other users whose catches vary each year depending on the health of the halibut resource.


“It is clear that bycatch is an issue of blatant wanton waste that is impacting our Alaskan fisheries like never before! That is the reason I’ve penned this 4th letter to the NPFMC, in addition to calling for a House Fisheries Committee meeting regarding bycatch overall, that took place a few weeks ago. This bipartisan and bicameral letter shows how important good stewardship of our state’s fisheries is to Alaskans,” said Rep. Sarah Vance of Homer who submitted the letter along with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka.


On a related salmon note – From the offices of Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Sullivan, and Rep. Young:   "The Alaska Congressional Delegation will host a salmon roundtable on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Unalakleet, and Chignik River watersheds December 8th and 9th beginning at 12:30 AKST each day. The agenda will include updates from the delegation, a community leader panel, and federal and state research presentations followed by a Q&A. This event aims to allow experts and impacted communities to join together and share information in one (virtual) room as we all work together to forge the best path forward for this critical resource.  Agenda and additional information to come. This event is open to the public."  Please RSVP to [email protected]


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