Managers of halibut in the Pacific will be setting catch limits in January and could be considering a small decrease for commercial and guided sport fishing fleets in Southeast Alaska.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission held its interim meeting at the end of November and scientists presented the latest information on catches and stock estimates for the valuable bottom fish. The IPHC oversees commercial, sport and subsistence halibut catches in the U.S. and Canada from California to Alaska.

Ian Stewart, a quantitative scientist with the commission says researchers are seeing a steady, slow increase in the halibut stock coast wide. “It’s pretty consistent in what we’ve been predicting over the last four stock assessments,” said Stewart. “It’s not a huge increase but just a gradual build up of the spawning biomass. The real highlights for this year is we’re seeing some bycatch reductions and the harvest policy results are somewhat more variable across areas.”

Biomass is a word for the total weight of the flat fish estimated to live on the ocean floor coast-wide. The commission does annual stock assessment fishing to come up with an estimate of halibut. Stewart explained that this year IPHC staff changed the way they calculate the abundance of the fish and where those fish are located based on those surveys. “And that’s improved our estimates but it has changed our perception of just exactly how the biomass is distributed around the stock,” he said. “And in part it’s led to our understanding that there’s a bit more biomass in the central part of the stock then we previously estimated and a bit less on the eastern side of the stock. But then superimposed on top of that are also some differences in what we’ve seen in the survey the last few years and this year in particular.”
Each year commissioners from the U.S. and Canada decide on overall catch limits for commercial and guided sport fleets, as well as the way that catch is divvied up between parts of the Alaska coast, British Columbia and the western U.S. Halibut commission staff at the interim meeting presented several alternatives for catch limits for 2017. One would have an overall decrease in fishing coast-wide, with most of that decrease coming from area 2B in British Columbia. Area 2C Southeast Alaska and area 3A, the central Gulf would see small cuts to the commercial and guide sport fishing catch under that alternative. Another option would continue the same level of fishing pressure that fleets have enjoyed in recent years. That alternative would translate to catch increases for the upcoming year for the central Gulf and western parts of Alaska but a decrease for Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.

The commission will decide on catch limits, other proposed changes to management and season length at an annual meeting January 23rd-27th in Victoria, BC.