International Halibut Commission recommends drastic cuts in quotas, with worse to come

Environment Fishery

659-iphc.gifThe International Pacific Halibut Commission is recommending drastic cuts in quotas along the west coast for the 2012  season and possibly even larger cuts for the 2013 season.

For area 2B, the coast of British Columbia, the IPHC is recommending an overall quota of  6.633 million pounds, down from 7.650 million pounds in 2011, a decrease of 13.3 per cent.

Along the entire Pacific Coast, the IPHC wants the total  harvest cut 19 per cent from 41.07 million pounds this year to 33.882 million pounds in 2012.

The recommendations are based on the IPHC’s studies of the 2011 halibut harvest.

The commission says that exploitable biomass of  halibut continues to decline, reflecting lower recruitment (the number of fish that are becoming harvestable)  from the 1989 to 1997 year classes and smaller size at age.

The commission says that  while recruitment  from more recent year classes is stronger but halibut size at age continues to be much lower than that seen in the recent period (1997-1998) of historic high biomass, so these year classes are recruiting to the exploitable biomass more slowly than past year classes.

The IPHC FAQ explains this in easier terms as

For a simple question, this has a bit of a complicated answer. The simple answer is, they are still here. Or at least the same age fish are still here. For the past 15 years or so, halibut growth rates have been depressed to levels that haven’t been seen since the 1920’s. Both females and male halibut have the potential to grow rapidly until about age 10, about 2 inches per year for males and 2.5 inches for females. Thereafter, females have the potential to grow even faster, while males generally would slow down relative to female growth. Growth rates for these larger fish in the last 10 or so years are more on the order of one inch or less per year. This translates into a much smaller fish at any given age. There was a dramatic increase in halibut growth rates in the middle of this century, especially in Alaska. Sometime around 1980, growth rates started to drop, and now Alaska halibut of a given age and sex are about the same size as they were in the 1920’s. For example, in the northern Gulf of Alaska, an 11-year-old female halibut weighed about 20 pounds in the 1920’s, nearly 50 pounds in the 1970’s, and now again about 20 pounds. The reasons for both the increase and the decrease are not yet known but may be tied to increased abundance of other species, such as arrowtooth flounder, and availability of food supply

Steve Hare, the commission’s chief scientist told the Alaska Dispatch that scientists are becoming uncomfortable with the model they are using to calculate the biomass because “season after season the numbers of dead fish don’t add up correctly.”

Hare told the Alaska Dispatch that the commission is considering a new model that could mean “staggering cuts of 63 percent in the halibut fisheries to a mere 15 million pounds” in 2013.

Halibut quotas have been cut half since 2001 and the Alaska Dispatch says: “the implications of such a cut are huge — not only for fishermen of all sorts, but for small coastal communities from British Columbia north through Alaska, and for consumers.”

The quotas will be finalized and confirmed at the IPHC annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, during January 24-27, 2012.

IPHC news release Dec. 2, 2011 (pdf)