Get ready for a big halibut battle in South Coastal Alaska.
With the big, tasty flatfish continuing to decline in number in the North Pacific Ocean, the fish war that commercial fishing interests long hoped to avoid appears to be creeping closer.
The commercial industry’s divide-and-conquer approach to sportfish halibut harvests that appeared a masterstroke when imposed on charter anglers five years ago is now threatened by a halibut shortage severe enough it might require restrictions on all anglers.
The so-called “catch-share plan” devised by a North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) dominated by commercial interests in 2013 reduced a long-standing, guideline-harvest level of 3.65 million pounds per year for sport fisheries to less than 2 million pounds per year for charters in a broad swath of the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak Island to Yakutat.
Charter interests fought the change, but as small businesses that cater in significant part to tourists – who are not always appreciated in Alaska – they were powerless to do much.
Alaska sport fishermen in general stayed out of the fight content with the NPFMC’s promise that unguided anglers would retain the two-fish per day bag limit with no seasonal limit that has long been the norm in the so-called recreational fishery.
The strategy worked out well for a commercial industry with a quota of about 20 million pounds. Its catch was up about 1 million in 2019, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC).
But that was then; and this is now.
The IPHC earlier this year took a look at the sex of halibut harvested in commercial fisheries coastwide and discovered a production problem.
“The primary driver behind that has been the addition of new information about the sex ratio of the commercial fishery catch that has indicated that we’ve probably been fishing this stock harder than we thought historically,” IPHC scientist Ian Stewart told the Commission at meeting in Seattle last month.
Translation: Too many female halibut are being caught, and halibut numbers are declining just as deer numbers decline when too many does are harvested or moose numbers fall when too many cows are killed.
Charter boat operator Bob Candopoulos from Seward on Tuesday expressed bafflement at this new discovery.
“They just realized now that we’ve been catching a majority of female habitat? I knew that when I was an 18-year-old deckhand,” the now middle-aged skipper said. “They just figured this out?”
The scientists for the IPHC, a U.S.-Canadian entity that manages halibut from California around the coast to the Aleutian Islands, were not unaware of male-female harvest rate differences; it appears they just had the ratios of males to females slightly wrong.
As a result, the spawning biomass of halibut has been falling since 2013 sparking the need for cutbacks in harvests going forward.
How big those reductions will be has not yet been officially determined but at a meeting between charter fishermen and the Council on Tuesday, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sarah Webster suggested the charter allocation for Area 3A – the South Coastal area that includes major charter ports in Homer, Seward, Valdez and Kodiak – could drop by up to 650,000 pounds.
The harvest quota for this year was 1.89 million pounds, and the fishery ended up 6.5 percent over quota with a harvest plus catch-and-release mortality of just over 2 million pounds.
That’s less than a third of the 6.5 million pounds discarded as by-catch from offshore commercial fisheries last year, according to the IPHC, but more on that later.
Webster’s best-case scenario for 2020 charter quota predicted an allocation of 1.6 million pounds or about 80 percent of this year’s catch. The worst-case scenario would see a reduction to about 65 percent of the 2019 catch.
In hopes of avoiding economic devastation in the charter fleet, all sorts of options – starting with more size restrictions on the fish that can be kept by charter anglers and more closed days during the week – are being discussed.
But few in the charter business can see a regulatory option that doesn’t devastate a once mighty segment of the tourism industry already a shadow of what it was in its heyday a decade ago.
Area 3A charter anglers are now limited to a total of four halibut per year with the daily limit reduced to one halibut of any size and one so-called “chicken halibut” of 26-inches or less.
A further reduction to a limit of one halibut per day would likely lead most Alaska resident anglers to abandon charters, operators say. Since the one-big-fish, one-little-fish rule was imposed, there has already been a resident shift away from charters to unguided boat rentals.
Unguided (ie. non-charter) anglers all fall under the rule of two fish per day of any size and no seasonal limit.
Instead of taking charters, some anglers have even turned to kayak fishing for halibut, and an enterprising business in Homer at the end of the Kenai Penisula has started offering drop-off kayak halibut fishing trips.
“…The Tutka Bay Express leaves Homer with our captain. While under power to our dock, guests are briefed on safety, kayak and fishing instruction,” Just Add Water Adventures advertises. “Previous kayaking or fishing experience suggested. We provide all the right equipment and instruction.”
Candopoulos said the amoeboid like shift of the fishery away from charters has been obvious on the halibut grounds for several years.
He was one of the skippers who pioneered the halibut fishery outside of Seward’s Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska off Prince William Sound’s Montague Island. A small collective of charter boat operators used to have that area pretty much to themselves.
Now, he said, they’ve all sort of become marker buoys for privately owned and rental boats looking to find the legendary flatfish.
“For every charter boat you see out there,” he said, “there are now five private boats. We anchor up. We get surrounded. We’re all targets now. If they see a charter boat, they’re coming.”
Other charter boat skippers echo those comments and say it’s time to bring all recreational anglers – no matter how they get to the fish – back under the same regulatory umbrella.
“Some of the charters are already bitching about the private anglers not being affected,” said Ken Frederico, a fisheries activist. He’s worried about average Alaskans losing out. Both sides are pressuring the state to take a more active role in the issue.
It has so far largely stayed out of the fight over halibut. The state under previous governors even ignored requests from the charter sector for an economic analysis of the consequences of the catch-share plan before its implementation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the U.S. Commerce Department Agency responsible for managing fisheries outside of state territorial waters – also refused to conduct such an analysis, saying it was too difficult.
NOAA analysts later concluded the charter operators suffered an $85 million loss – 16 to 37 times the $2.3 to $5.3 million that NOAA in 2015 reported 1,431 commercial fishermen holding individual fishing quota (IFQ) for Alaska halibut stood to net from a quota shift of 1.9 million pounds.
Frederico expressed outrage that the sport charter catch is but a third of the 6.5 million pounds of halibut discarded as by-catch in federal fisheries managed by NOAA off the state’s coast. By-catch is unintended harvest either discarded or, in some cases, donated to charities.
“We need to…press the issue on 6 million pounds of bycatch from the trawlers,” he said.
But Andy Mezirow of Seward, the Council member leading Tuesday’s meeting, rejected that suggestion as unrealistic in the near term.
The Council, he said, is “not equipped to take from one and give to another,” noting that quota shifts must make their way through the long, complicated federal regulatory process.
“That’s not really where we’re at now,” he said. “There’s a political process involved. There’s no simple way out of this. We’re going to have to catch less halibut.”
Or somebody is going to have to catch fewer halibut.