(Photo courtesy of the International Pacific Halibut Commission)

Scientists monitoring halibut say there could be a decline in the bottom fish along the coast of the U.S. and Canada in upcoming years if the current level of fishing continues.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission oversees management of the fish along the coast from Alaska to California. Commissioners had an interim meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, November 28-29th in Seattle and heard about this year’s catch and the latest estimates of halibut stocks.

Scientists found fewer younger halibut in survey fishing done up and down the coast this year. That could signal a decrease in halibut numbers and what’s caught in the commercial fishery in upcoming years.

“What we are starting to see here is a projection we’ve got fewer young fish coming into the stock and that’s very consistent with the setline survey dropping in terms of numbers and it’s also why we’re really not seeing it yet in the commercial fishery,” Ian Stewart, a quantitative scientist with the commission. “Because that fishery is still largely dominated by these better year classes that are still present in the fishery catch. But will be decreasing in the fishery catch over the next several years.”

The IPHC’s survey found a decrease from last year in the number of halibut caught. Coast-wide that drop was 24 percent from 2016, with some variation between different parts of the coast. Meanwhile, catch rates actually increased in the commercial fishery in some areas. Coast-wide commercial catches this year topped 26 million pounds. Fishing fleets targeting other species caught another six million pounds of halibut as bycatch.

Staff scientists don’t recommend catch levels to the U.S. and Canadian commissioners. Instead they present the likelihood of future declines or increases in fish stocks based on different catch limits. Because fish numbers are dropping, most areas of the coast could see decreases in the commercial and charter catch limits next year if the commission decides to stay with the same level of fishing intensity as 2017.

Commissioner Linda Behnken of Alaska asked for more clarity on the impacts of those catch limits for the future. “It does seem as if the reductions we’re seeing you calling for here indicated are really driven by recruitment and the fact that there’s not small fish moving in to replace the bigger fish, or to recruit into the fishery,” Behnken said. “And so I think part of what we’re going to have to understand when we take action at the annual meeting is how sensitive the population is in the future projections to the fishing intensity levels.”

The commission will decide catch limits at their annual meeting in Portland, Oregon in late January. They’ll also be considering various regulatory changes and setting the season dates for next year.