Commission reinforces halibut fishing limits

Halibut fishing in a long line awaits unloading in Petersburg. (Angela Denning/KFSK)

A joint US-Canadian halibut regulatory committee voted last week to increase bottom fishing limits for this year.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission held its nearly annual meeting from January 24 to 28. It determines the combined total annual limits of commercial, sporting, and subsistence fisheries stretching from Alaska to California.

The committee approved the overall coastal-level limit for this year at 41.22 million pounds, up 5% from last year.

Scientist Ian Stewart has reported some encouraging signs from halibut surveys and fishing.

“I would like to start with some good news, which is that we saw indices rise in 2021 as younger fish enter, particularly the 2012 class that has moved into stocks,” Stewart told the committee.

Scientists estimate that stocks have declined over the past five years. But Stewart said the fish born in 2012 could halt the trend. He also noted that over the past two years, fisheries in most parts of the coast were below the fishing limits.

“The bottom line is that we’ve seen less stock hunting in the past two years than we’ve seen at any time in the last decade or so,” he said.

Over the past century, annual catches along the coast have ranged from 34 million pounds to about 100 million pounds. The past couple of years have seen total declines near the bottom of this range. These figures include catches from fisheries targeting halibut as well as by-catch from other fisheries.

The increase approved for this year does not apply to all parts of the coast equally. For Southeast Alaska, Zone 2C, that would mean a rise of close to 2%, while it’s close to 4% for Zone 3A, or the Middle Gulf of Alaska. Area 2B, the coast of British Columbia, is seeing an overall increase of about 8%. Area 3B in the western Gulf of Alaska is experiencing a 25% increase.

The authority also approved the procedures for managing fishing in the southeast and central Gulf. In the southeast, this would mean the continuation of the one-fish bag limit, but the size limit more restricted. That fish should be 40 inches or less, or larger than 80 inches. Directed and undirected recreational fisheries exceeded harvest limits in the Southeast last year.

Like last year, this year’s commercial fishing season for halibut along most of the coast will be from March 6 to December 7.

The Halibut Commission will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024.

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