Most parts of the Pacific coastline will see an increase in commercial and charter fishing catch limits for halibut this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission Friday approved a coast-wide catch limit of 31.4 million pounds of the valuable bottom fish. That’s an increase from just under 30 million pounds last year.

Several parts of the coast were facing catch limit cuts based on alternatives presented by IPHC scientists. However, commissioners voted to boost harvest limits instead of making reductions.

Earlier in the week-long meeting scientist Ian Stewart summed up results of an assessment of the halibut stocks, based on survey fishing and commercial catches. “What we’re seeing this year is slightly flatter trends than we saw last year,” Stewart told the commission. “The stock assessment itself has come down just slightly in its estimate of overall spawning biomass. But the projections, the 1-3 year projections are still suggesting that removals of around 40 million pounds are pretty close to the overall surplus production that’s available from the stock.”

Scientists say removing above 40 million pounds of halibut from the water each year gives a greater chance of stock declines in the future. Last’s year’s total removals, which includes bycatch from other fisheries not targeting halibut, was just under 42 million pounds coast-wide.

Photo from the IPHC

Photo from the IPHC

For this year, commissioners approved a combined commercial and charter sport catch for Southeast Alaska area 2C of 5.25 million pounds. That’s an increase from just under five million pounds last year.

Commissioner Linda Behnken of Alaska noted that 2C catch limit is below the amount recommended by the commission’s fishing and processing advisory boards. “I have also heard from area 2C fishermen a strong commitment to slow rebuilding of the stock or to conservative catch limits to ensure we continue to rebuild the stock while setting the catch limits at a level that recognizes the strong rebuilding that we’re seeing,” Behnken said.

Behnken noted her desire for a more consistent harvest rate across all of area 2, which stretches from Southeast Alaska to California, but thought the numbers set by the commission were a step closer to that goal. Southeast Alaska commercial fishing groups have been concerned about the high level of harvest set for area 2B in British Columbia, without similar limits set on this side of the border.

There was some disagreement about the BC catch limit this year. Commission chair Paul Ryall of Canada moved to set the area 2B limit at 7.45 million pounds, a small increase from last year. “2B has not experienced any of the declines in its survey or fishery indices that most other areas have experienced over the last 10 years,” Ryall said.

The final number approved for BC is also below recommendations from fishing and processor advisory boards. Canadian commercial fishermen report strong catches and have lobbied for higher harvests.

Jim Balsiger, commissioner from Alaska, was the only vote against the BC catch limit. “Every area has to contribute to rebuilding the stock from the low level that it’s at now,” Balsiger said. “I think that the spawning products that come from 2B area a necessary part for rebuilding the stock.”

Elsewhere, area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska will have a combined commercial and charter catch of 10 million pounds, an increase from 9.6 million last year.
Most areas in fact will have higher catch limits than 2016. Only areas 4A and 4B around the Aleutian Islands were set at the same level as last year.

Commissioners also voted to start the season on March 11th and end it on November 7th. That start date is a compromise between an earlier date requested by fishermen and a later date sought by processing companies.