By DJ Summer, Alaska Journal of Commerce, December 2, 2015 —

Photo – Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

Dave Jacobs, left, and Steve Curl watch as Anthony Ballam lowers a halibut into the hold of the Independence in Cook Inlet. Cook Inlet, which is in Area 3A for charter halibut removals, has a recommended cut in harvest from 2015 according to the scientists at the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this month in Anchorage to set charter harvest rules for 2016.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Anchorage Dec. 9-15 at the Hilton to hash out sport halibut measures for 2016 in addition to setting groundfish harvest limits.

Groundfish — which includes pollock, Pacific cod and flatfish — makes the bulk of the volume pulled from the federal waters off Alaska’s coast. Harvest quotas totaling two million metric tons of those species are set each year in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries.

The council also will adopt charter halibut rules for 2016, which can include size, bag and annual limits for sport anglers to keep them within their overall allocation.

The bottom trawlers who prosecute the groundfish fisheries will be on the lookout for restrictive total allowable catch, or TAC, having taken some cuts last year and taken bycatch cap reductions earlier in 2015. Halibut avoidance is a high priority for council, and groundfish trawlers take the vast majority of halibut that is bycatch.

To start off the meeting, the Amendment 80 cooperatives of bottom trawl catcher-processors will report on what progress they’ve made reducing halibut bycatch on their own. Lori Swanson, executive director of industry group Groundfish Forum, said her fleet has managed to cut its overall bycatch by several hundred tons in 2015 using voluntary measure like intrafleet communication, deck sorting, and halibut excluder devices.

Halibut management sorely needs an overhaul, according to policy makers. Clashes between directed halibut fisheries, the groundfish trawlers who use halibut as bycatch, and the younger guided angler industry are spurring the council to review a new halibut management framework that takes a more nuanced and proactive role in the fishery.

In summary, the framework tries to identify what data the council needs to best manage halibut, and the best way to get and share it. First and foremost is how to bridge the knowledge gap between the two biggest halibut authorities.

The North Pacific council oversees all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast. It only manages the sport removals and halibut bycatch, mostly concentrated in the groundfish fisheries.

The U.S.-Canadian International Pacific Halibut Commission manages the directed halibut fisheries. Unlike the council’s stationary bycatch limits, the commission’s halibut quotas shift with legally harvestable halibut biomass.

Directed halibut limits have shrunk along with declining biomass, while bycatch limits largely remained unchanged until reductions for the Gulf of Alaska passed in 2012 and new reductions for the Bering Sea passed earlier this year.

As a result, more halibut are taken and wasted as bycatch than by the actual halibut fishery, disenfranchising small boat halibut fishermen in fishery-dependent communities. The council reduced bycatch limits in June, but the cuts were less than the Bering Sea halibut fishermen say they needed.

Learning from each other’s methodology will factor heavily into the new framework. Right now, the council’s only formal communication with the commission is a yearly management report. Informal information sharing and collaboration are common, but not required.

The proposed framework makes is clear there is no plan to merge the two bodies, but would like to create a system of recommendations from one to another, along with the possibility of regularly scheduled meetings in some kind of joint protocol board.

Along with inter-body meetings, stakeholders have requested the council create some kind of advisory system that addresses not only biological issues but also economic and social issues. As fishery-dependent communities in the Bering Sea have little other economic driver besides commercial fishing, they believe more thought should go into allocations than just what is biologically acceptable. Potentially, this could mean a new system where a stakeholder group makes recommendations prior to the regular council process.

Even arriving at what is “biologically acceptable” needs revision. The framework says the industry needs a host of new science to better inform both the North Pacific council and the international commission.

“I think everybody recognizes the need for better science,” Swanson said. “There’s a lot of conjecture about what the impact of Bering Sea bycatch is, and it drives decisions behind not-so-solid science.”

The new framework will identify council priorities, including migration studies of halibut spawned in the Bering Sea, the rate at which discarded bycatch fish die, and the disparity between U.S. and Canadian abundance survey techniques.

To get to more concrete numbers, the council will review the efficacy and frequency of tagging studies for Bering Sea halibut, deck sorting mortality rates, observer coverage rates, and environmental impact studies.

Among other research priorities, the North Pacific council will review a discussion paper on a possible abundance-based halibut bycatch management scheme similar to the commission’s. Earlier this year the council heard a presentation from Steve Martell, a fisheries biologist working for the commission regarding the possibility, and identified process as a possibility.

Halibut sportfishing captains want restructuring in their fleet as well. As biomass has declined, charter operators have seen their slice of the halibut pie shrink, too. They have no sector-wide method to purchase unused allocation from the commercial fleets who use the fish as bycatch, and are asking for a remedy.

The council will hold an initial review of Recreational Quota Entities, which would potentially hold commercial halibut quota share on behalf of guided recreational halibut anglers under a “willing seller and willing buyer” approach. This would allow looser charter restrictions while still staying within halibut allocations.

The proposed program would differ from current Guided Angler Fish system in that charter operators could purchase, rather than simply lease, quota from commercial users. The program would also be sector-wide rather than individual; purchased quota would be held in a common pool for all charter vessels to draw from as needed to stay within their allocation.

The council will review several different options on how many RQEs to establish and in which areas, what kind of transfers will be allowed, and the broader economic impacts of RQEs on the commercial and charter fleets. Halibut quota isn’t cheap, and the charter industry will have to determine how they purchase the quota in the first place.