2017 Spring Groundfish Outlook

Tom MarkingGroundfish

I always enjoyed the scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye is having a discussion with himself up in the barn loft; “on the one hand”….but “on the other hand”…and so it would go, debating the pros and cons of various decisions he was faced with. I can relate: We are open for fishing for groundfish and halibut on May 1, but the weather is so crummy, hardly anyone can get out. We can keep one Canary in our bag limit of ten fish, but we have been cut back to three blacks. We have been cut back to two lings, but we can fish petrale sole at all depths and all season…and so it goes. This year is full of changes and modifications. No salmon season, but halibut is open all of May, if you dare to get out on the water; we get to fish to 30 fathoms and we get to fish all depths during November and December. The concern is whether we can fish the ten extra fathoms and fish all depth the last two months of the year and still avoid Yelloweye Rockfish (YE). To address that concern, we all need to have release devices on our boats and to use them if any shorts or YE are hooked up. YE are really tough fish and survive barotrauma well, if you get them back to depth without delay. And let’s not forget the boat ramp concern, where we need a swamp boat to slide across the mud flat upon launch. That is atrocious and hopefully can be corrected sometime this summer, but it doesn’t look promising. Lots of agencies, all with their respective permits and applications, little time and lots of dollars ground up in the planning and permitting process. Sigh!!!
I just came back from three days of halibut meetings with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) in Seattle and the halibut world is in for some dramatic changes. The IPHC Commissioners made it very clear this past January they did not like the “risk table” using the Blue Line that has been the basic model for the Commissioners for the last several years. The Exploitable Biomass as the baseline was a confusing and controversial concept, not well understood and thus rejected. As of 2018 Spawning Biomass Potential (SPR) will be used to guide the Commission in the distribution of P. halibut over the North Pacific between the US, Canada and Alaska. Since this is the initial roll-out of SPR as the guidance tool for distribution, I’m certain there will be confusion and angst when the numbers develop next January prior to the annual meeting. SPR has been used for the past decade in many other fisheries, but halibut are a different critter with migration and recruitment a very big part of the equation. The Canadians and the U.S. Tribes are not happy campers at this point because they really dislike the survey results and the distribution model that has been used since 2006 when they changed from a Regional Model to a Coastwide Model. Suffice it to say, changes are in order, but I don’t know what the outcome will be at this point. And, we need to contend with the newly instituted “hook competition” methodology, and the Time-Space model implemented this year. It’s difficult to make historical comparative analyses with so many recent high impact modifications. Also, the new surveys in California this year, and the expanded surveys in the Tribal areas north of the Columbia River to Canada could be significant in the distribution and harvest control scenarios.

It should be noted that the P. halibut population is shifting more east into the Gulf of Alaska, and south down the coast. The Trawlers inform me that they are starting to pick up halibut down the Coast, substantially below the Cape Mendocino area. This is important news and is definitely a shift in behavior from the past decade. Hopefully, the new survey sampling being done this summer will pick up some of these fish and help substantiate our case for building up our abundance numbers for higher harvest rates in the California area. This is a multiyear process, but the survey is the first step.

Enjoy the summer, try to avoid salmon as by-catch, good luck with halibut and petrale and hope for improved halibut surveys in the North and the Mendocino area. We won’t know until December of this year how the season modifications will impact the fishery. Get your release devices ready to go and be prepared to use them when appropriate.
Tight lines!