Halibut commission’s disagreement causes uncertainty for U.S. fishermen

Jan 31, 2018

Credit Creative Commons photo by Ed Bierman

There’s a bit of uncertainty heading into this year’s halibut season after U.S. and Canadian members of the International Pacific Halibut Commission failed to reach an agreement on quotas for 2018.

For now, each country is setting its own catch limits for halibut, and that has some U.S. commercial fishermen worried about overfishing in Canada and whether the U.S. rulemaking process will be nimble enough to enact quotas in in time for the commercial season opener.

There have been fundamental disagreements between U.S. and Canadian halibut fishermen over the years about the IPHC’s science and how quotas, or catch limits, are dispersed between the two countries.

Those disagreements came to a head last Friday.

“That’s been building, but one of the catalysts that finally brought it to a head this year was the poor setline survey of this year which bode there was going to be pretty significant cuts,” said Bruce Gabrys, a Homer-based commercial fisherman.

Gabrys attended the IPHC meeting in Portland last week, and the survey he’s referring to indicated that the number of young halibut is dropping, signaling future stock declines.

IPHC scientists suggested a 24-percent cut across the board, but some fishermen and commissioners have pushed back against that assessment.

Both U.S. and Canadian commissioners agreed there needed to be a cut of some kind, but could not agree just how large cuts should be and where they should come from.

Commercial fisherman and President of the North Pacific Fisheries Association Malcolm Milne supported the recommended cut and says the commission’s disagreement over the numbers is cause for concern.

“Well the first emotion was the uncertainty of it all because at this point, we don’t even know what the quotas might end up at,” Milne explained. “They did indicate what their recommended numbers were, but they’ll have to be decided domestically. I don’t think anybody has a playbook of how that’s going to pan out.”

Milne adds that he thinks quotas in Canadian waters have consistently been set too high.

Over the past five years, quotas have been set roughly 2 million pounds over suggested levels in Canada. The U.S. as a whole, which is made up of seven regulatory areas, exceeded recommendations by about 2.5 million pounds between 2013 and 2016. Gulf of Alaska is the U.S.’s largest regulatory area and accounts for most of its quota, but catch limits have only exceeded IPHC suggestions twice in the past five years.

When the IPHC doesn’t come to an agreement, quotas are supposed to revert back to the previous year, but all parties involved agree those numbers are too high.

U.S. commissioners indicated the catch in U.S. waters would drop from 32.5 million pounds to about 30 million, and Canadian commissioners say they will lower quotas by about 1.2 million pounds, down from 8.3 million in 2017.

But fishermen like Milne and Gabrys are worried those numbers could change.

“This is non-binding. So, either party could choose to take a higher or lower number,” Gabrys said.

Each country will set quotas through their domestic rulemaking process. Stephen Keith is the assistant director of the IPHC and doesn’t expect either country’s numbers to shift. But Keith adds that the U.S. process may make it difficult to set quotas in time for the commercial season .

“On the U.S. side, the National Marine Fisheries Service will be doing that, and they’ll have to jump through some hoops in order to get it done in time for the March 24 season opening date,” Keith said.

The National Marine Fishery’s Service declined to comment on whether it’s using the numbers suggested by U.S. commissioners, or whether quotas will be set in time. A spokesperson only said the agency is “examining next steps.”

If the U.S. season opener is delayed, Gabrys said that could be a problem for fishermen who target halibut early in the season and adds a late start date could have other impacts.

“With processers, they have planning to do. They have customers that they have to line up. So, the sooner we can get a firm date we can open the fishery, the better it will be for everyone,” Gabrys said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which will set quotas in Canadian waters, also said it’s deciding what to do next.

Some are hoping the IPHC will make a last-ditch effort to come to an agreement, but others say a last-minute meeting may just delay the process.