Winter 2019 Groundfish report, by Tom Marking

Cliff HartAlerts

The winter weather is upon us and the fishery biologists are busy with their computers, compiling lasts year’s harvest and make projections for the coming year.  Numbers are still very preliminary for CDFW, who are not yet on an electronic reporting schedule for recreational fishing, and thus is still scouring through stacks of fishery observer paper reports.  But here are a few updates…some good news and some not so good.

PACIFIC HALIBUT:  Halibut is our big success story for this year.  Having just come back from a week in beautiful Victoria, Canada, where the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) met for the week, the Area 2A allocation came out better than expected. The Makah Tribe, representing the 13 Washington State Treaty Tribes, put forth a proposal on behalf of all Area 2A that we be provided a set amount of 1.5 million lbs for fishery allocation of halibut for the next several years.  They wanted this to be a floor amount to stop the survey annual variation uncertainty that creates havoc in all our Pacific States fisheries.  The industry groups supported the 1.5 million lbs fishery allocation, but felt very nervous about a “minimal floor concept” that might be considered a perpetual level.   The IPHC Commission, with Staff support, granted this amount with a four year time period.  The result is, we now have a stable 39,000 lb allocation to California for the next four years.

The Alaskans and the Canadians (BC) have been in a running argument over the last ten years regarding the survey numbers, historical catch, harvest amounts, and allocations.  This boiled over last year, and the USA and Canada, for the first time in their long history, did not come to a harvest agreement.  That was resolved this year, with two new IPHC Commissioners being appointed on the USA side and a negotiated settlement with Canada for a four year period to allow tensions to settle down.  The Area 2B (Canada) allocation will be based upon a weighted average: 70% of the historical average of 20% of the fishery, and 30% of the annual survey for a blended allocation of 17.7%.  In addition, a Peer Review by independent scientists will look at the Survey Process this year, and file a report on their opinion of whether it’s appropriate.  I welcome a Science Review of the IPHC survey process.  The Hook-Competition and Spatial-Temporal Models have really hit the 2A and 2B survey areas hard, shifting over 30% of our allocation north to the Area 3 and Area 4 Regions.  We have disagreed with these modeling efforts since they were included in 2016.  But the Pacific halibut allocations have been settled for now, at least until 2022.

GROUNDFISH:  CDFW had a meeting in late January where we discussed the harvest of 2018 and fishery regulations for 2019.  The good news is that the Yelloweye Rockfish is rebuilding much faster than anticipated.  The reasoning is that the 2011/12 year had a very strong cohort of recruitment that is improving the rebuilding plan.  Initially, year 2072 was projected as a target rebuilding date due to recruitment and fishery avoidance, but now the rebuilding date has dropped to 2028.  That is great news, as this species constrains all sectors of the industry, especially the sports sector.  The California bycatch mortality amount will increase from 3.7 metric tons (mt) to over 9 mt for 2019.  With this increase, hopefully we can stay at our 30 fathom depth for all year, with an all-depth in November-December.  However, with more depth, and more Yelloweye available due to improved recruitment, the Rebuilding Paradox will come into play where we will encounter more fish than over the past several years.  We’ve already witnessed this in the north where our Yelloweye encounters have almost quadrupled due to the extra 10 fathoms for the past two years.  Avoidance is critical and the use of Descenders when Yelloweye are released is paramount.

Total rockfish bag limits will remain at ten, but we will be allowed to add one more canary (was two) and one more black rockfish (was three) in the sub-bag limit Statewide.  For lingcod, north of Cape Mendocino (40d 10’), we will remain at two, whereas south of this line the bag limit must be dropped to one.  It’s not that the lingcod are overfished, it’s just because the non-trawl allocation limit has been exceeded in the southern portion of the state.  The stock is very healthy, with only about 40% of the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) being attained, because the trawl sectors cannot fish in the Rockfish Conservation Area (RCA) where lingcod are abundant.

PERMITS: Here comes the bad new (for sports) regarding in-shore fishing.  Two years ago, the NFMS did an economic analysis of the state of the fishery, and the loss of revenue in the ports on the west coast was staggering.  The survey focused on the Commercial Sector.  Eureka was the second most economically damaged port identified in the survey, from loss of fish landed and economic loss.  So, to help remedy that, CDFW allowed the transfer of off-shore rockfish permits to in-shore fishing for the Commercial Sector.  While there were not that many in-shore permit holders, they harvest anywhere from 10% of ling cod and rockfish.  Now, with the permit transfer, that amount will increase substantially.  With these permits costing about $100,000 to purchase from the trawl fleet, it takes a lot of rockfish, cabezon, lingcod, and flatfish to cover that capital cost.  Guess where that tonnage of fish is coming from?  Where else but to be shifted out of the non-trawl sports allocation.  We have already seen the impact on the Black Rockfish sub-bag limit.  We used to be at 10, dropped to 5 then down to 3 in 2017 due to concern of the lack of three year old females in the last full assessment.  Whereas sports harvest used to be over 300 mt annually, with the non-trawl commercial harvesting about 30 mt; now the sports only harvests about 97 mt (with a bag limit of three), and a fourth fish is projected to move us up to 155 mt (hmmm, interesting math).  Now, expect the in-shore commercial to harvest far above their customary 30 mt.  CDFW didn’t offer a tonnage amount for the projected increase due to the permit transfers, or the number of permit transfers that have occurred, or that they expect to occur.  HASA should follow up on this, as we in the north suffer the greatest impact from this CDFW action last year.

SALMON:  I don’t deal with this sector, but with the rebuilding plan facing us for the over-fished Klamath and Sacramento rivers, we should pay attention and may see some reduction in harvest to support the rebuilding plans that are currently out for public comment. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) might select a status quo alternative, since salmon can bounce back fairly rapidly, but the geometric mean for both river systems are fairly low and have quite a ways to come back to get to the minimum floor escapement amounts.  Those decisions will be made in the March and April PFMC meetings this year.

CONCLUSION:  We are better off than last year regarding halibut, and now have petrale sole available all year. We increased slightly with canary rockfish, we held our status with ling cod, but we are losing ground on black rockfish to the Commercial Sector.  Season structure and season dates are changing to our favor, allowing more time on the water.  The Mendocino subunit is still the most affected area at 20 fathoms, but that’s due to their area being a nursery area for the Yelloweye, and they seem to have the most impact at depth, followed closely by us in the North.  Maybe with the increase Yelloweye allowance, all areas above Pt. Arena can start seeing some relief.  Overall, the halibut was our best success story of the year, followed by the Yelloweye rebuilding plan.  May 1 comes fast, but this is the best I can offer you at this point. 

Tight Lines fellow anglers!