2019 Halibut Facts and Modifications of the Commercial Directed Derby Fishing Format, by Tom Marking

Cliff HartAlerts

Background Facts: Regulatory Reports and Size at Age Observations

The Annual IPHC Meeting is an interesting collection of folks from all over the western coast of North America: Canada, Alaska and the three Pacific States.  The Annual meeting is quite spirited among the ten Regional Areas as to what percentage of the allocation they will be allowed to harvest of Pacific halibut in the coming year.  While the Pacific halibut population is stable, the size at age is estimated to be about 60% of what it was thirty years ago in the 1980’s.  A 50 lb Pacific halibut back then is currently about 30 lbs. The current average weight of Pacific halibut fish in the Fishery Independent Stock Survey is about 25 pounds. Essentially, the population is healthy and numerous, just smaller.  The Fish Biologists aren’t in agreement why this has happened, but the reduction in size has had a concomitant reduction in the biomass of Pacific halibut that can be harvested by the various regulatory regions.  Currently, we are harvesting about 37 million pounds annually, whereas back in the 1980’s it averaged more closely to 55 million pounds annually.  This has created considerable competition between the ten regulatory areas, as we all have been forced to cut our harvests amounts.  In particular, Canada (Area 2B) has not been satisfied with the severe cut-backs demanded of them over the past decade.  Additionally, the Quantitative Specialists (Phd’s in Fishery Biology) have created a Coastwide Model, a Hook Competition Model and a Spatial-Temporal Model to deal with the changes in size and distribution.  These new models have created considerable conflict between Alaska and Canada.  In practice, these models seem to have moved biomass from the 2 Region up to the 3 and 4 Regions in Alaska. That conflict resulted in an impasse by the IPHC Commissioners last year regarding allocation distribution.  This year, the Commission was able to reached a compromise management control policy for the next four year period, avoiding an impasse.  Additionally, studies by Independent Scientists are scheduled this year to analyze the current survey and assessment science methods and provide feedback to the Commission prior to the 2020 annual meeting next January.

Harvest Reporting:  The various Regulatory Areas present reports to the Commission of their harvest efforts of the past year.  CDFW provided an annual report that was really quite interesting.  California reported a harvest of 31,156 pounds in 2018.  The average net weight per Pacific halibut in California was 24 pounds.  Dock observers measured 247 fish, 86 in Eureka, 60 in Trinidad, 42 in Crescent City, 31 in Fields Landing and 28 in Shelter Cove.  Catch trend indicates our daily catch is steadily increasing from about 60 pounds per day in the past, to 160 pounds per day currently, as more anglers participate and we get more skilled at catching.  There has been a shift from Trinidad to Eureka for the highest harvest rate, and our Catch per Unit Effort is increasing.  It is worth noting that the “over 32 inch” net weight per fish in California, is above even that of Southeast Alaska.  In fact, we are the highest weight per unit effort (WPUE), of over 32 inch Pacific halibut, in all the 10 regulatory areas!  Perhaps that occurs because we have little pressure from a commercial fishery history.  Over the past decade, the Pacific halibut population biomass seems to have shifted a bit more to the east and down to the south, toward SE Alaska, Canada and the Pacific States. 

Commercial Directed Derby Fishing

The 2A area (the Pacific States) has the only “derby style” commercial Pacific halibut fishery remaining.  While this is strictly a commercial fishery issue, sports anglers might be interested in the regulatory process and management alternatives.  Over the past few years, the IPHC has expressed concern to the PFMC, that they have safety and discard mortality concerns over the “derby style” fishing that occurs in the Area 2A Commercial Directed Pacific halibut fishery.  Due to workload, the PFMC has been slow to respond to these concerns.  The PFMC November Briefing Book and Agenda included a letter from the IPHC that reiterated the IPHC concern and explicitly stated the IPHC has the authority to stop the “derby style” fishery and implement a more rational type commercial system.  The IPHC sent out a survey to all the 2A registered license holders polling their opinion regarding their preference on the length of the season structure.  The choices available on the survey were a two day, five day or ten day fishery.   Of the 171 license holders who received the survey, 80% responded. The results were mixed on the number of days, but clearly a longer season is desired, especially by small boats that cannot safely participate due to the inclement weather conditions that the derby system frequently encounters.  The number of small boats that risk going out on bad weather days with the current two “ten hour” derby days is the major safety concern by both the IPHC and the Coast Guard.

The primary challenge in modifying the current derby fishery is how to distribute the allocation between the license holders.  At present, less than half of the license holders participate in the Pacific halibut fishery.  The primary reason is weather, with smaller boats unable to compete with larger long line boats.  The IPHC proposes a scenario where license holders will be limited to daily trip limits, depending upon the length of their vessel.  For example: with a 2-5 day season, a 1-25’ boat could catch 755 pounds/day, a 36-40’ boat could catch 4,165 lbs/day, while a 56’+ boat could catch 9,000 lbs/day (the tables include every size boat).   The challenge to the IPHC is to try to project how many boats will register, how much weight will be harvested, and how not to exceed the allocation limit.  And, with a harvest limit per vessel, will the tonnage allocated be sufficient to provide the needed profits across the fleet?  

Various options have been suggested: one preferred by some of the vessels is an individual quota (IQ) system, as currently exists in the trawl fishery.  This would require a control date and development of a management scheme that would distribute the commercial fishery annual Pacific halibut allocation among the eligible vessels (generally based upon catch history).  This is very controversial, and favors the larger vessels, especially those with a history of high catch.  CDFW is not supportive of the IQ system for that very reason; it would exclude California vessels, who only started to participate in the directed fishery a few years ago (4 vessels participated in 2018).  CDFW would prefer that Pacific halibut be managed as an incidental fishery, so that as vessels fish for other groundfish, the Pacific halibut they catch could be kept and not discarded (this would reduce discard mortality and wastage).  The challenge is how to structure this concept, so as not to exceed the allocation of the directed fishery.  There is also a suggestion to make it part of the sablefish fishery, that already is active in this fishery and would likewise reduce discard mortality.

Yelloweye Rockfish Bycatch:  A major concern presented by the PFMC to the IPHC, is the potential impact for yelloweye rockfish (YE) increased contacts, resulting from more gear and longer periods of bottom contact time.  Surprisingly, this concern was discounted by the IPHC Executive Director, but is considered to be a very real concern by those of us in the Area 2A region.  Increased YE mortality is to be expected, with many more vessels involved with longer bottom contact time.  Due to these concerns, the Commission passed a motion to schedule a workshop between the IPHC and PFMC in early 2019 to discuss and propose an acceptable alternative, which will be presented at the IPHC Annual Meeting in 2020 for action.  The PFMC and NMFS are very concerned about the work load on their staffs, and this new management program to be developed, will preempt other agendas items for this year. While a year may sound like a long time to some, this is a very short time period for PFMC regulatory action, due to constraints of Council meeting time, an over-loaded agenda this year, Federal Noticing requirements and public comment periods.  I don’t think the IPHC Staff (Secretariat) really appreciates the magnitude of what they are demanding, in such a short period of time. 

For those commercial vessels in California that may be impacted by potential changes in the Pacific halibut fishery, they should monitor this issue closely and send public comment to the CDFW on their preference regarding the length of the season, weight allocation issues and season start dates.  CDFW is very concerned that those California Commercial Vessels participating in Pacific halibut fishery receive fair treatment should any new alternative management system be proposed and implemented by the PFMC and the IPHC.  However, be advised, the IPHC has made it clear that they have the authority and the intent to end the “commercial directed derby fishery in 2A” this year and will implement an alternative management system in 2020.     Tight lines!