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IPHC commissioners hope to find middle ground on catch limits

Creative Commons photo by Ed Bierman

In January, disagreements on the International Pacific Halibut Commission came to a head. U.S. and Canadian commissioners are in agreement on one thing, halibut stocks are on the decline. But when it came to divvying up the catch between U.S. and Canadian waters, commissioners were at an impasse.

The fundamental disagreement comes down to whether halibut should be allocated solely based on the science or if social and economic considerations should also play a role. Next month commissioners will begin that conversation.

It’s been a couple of months since the IPHC’s annual meeting in Portland where commissioners announced that they simply could not agree on catch limits for 2018.

Each country went on to set their own catch limits, but commissioners are planning to reconvene on April 13 for an unofficial work session.

“There’s a dispute, at least in area 2B, whether or not there’s a fair distribution going on,” U.S. Commissioner Bob Alverson said, addressing area 2B off the coast of British Columbia. “And so the question is what are we doing, what don’t you agree with and what need to do so we can get an agreement?”

The disagreement in its most basic form is that both sides say the other isn’t taking large enough cuts as stocks decline.

Halibut are a highly migratory fish with some areas playing an important role for spawning. The entire West Coast is treated as one stock and IPHC staff conduct an annual coast-wide survey.  

The 2017 survey found that fewer younger fish are moving into the commercial fishery, signaling future declines, and the overall number of fish caught in the survey dropped 24 percent from 2016, which is also bad news.

IPHC staff give commissioners a range of probabilities that stocks will continue to decline based on different levels of fishing intensity.

IPHC Assistant Director Stephen Keith explains that commissioners typically use those probabilities and the distribution of the catch in the survey as a way to come up with quotas in each regulatory area.  

“So, there’s the science that we provide, and then the policy choice is what you do with the scientific results,” Keith said.

The policy side of things seems to be the crux of the disagreement and is sure to be the main topic of discussion in April.

“The current practice and the U.S. position has been that harvests should be proportional to the distributed abundance found in the survey,” Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and U.S. Commissioner Linda Behnken explained. “The survey has bounced around some from year to year. We need to talk about whether that apportionment is based strictly on the survey or the survey with some other considerations.”

Fishermen on the U.S. side have pushed for larger catch reductions for their Canadian counterparts. On the Canadian side, fishermen have argued that their catches are strong and such large cuts are not needed.

Canadian commissioners could not be reached in time for this story, but back in January Canadian Commission Chairman Paul Ryall disagreed with the status quo.

“An allocation takes into account more than science. It takes into social and economic considerations,” Ryall argued. “That has been the fundamental piece of disagreement as I said earlier between Canada and the U.S. on the view of apportionment.”

The halibut commission’s Management Strategy Advisory Board, which is made up of fishermen, processors and other stakeholders, has been tasked with exploring alternatives. The advisory board is due to make its recommendations on the topic by 2021, but commissioners to find middle ground on a temporary policy before next year in hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2018.

Commissioner Alverson said he’s hopeful something can be put in place by this fall.

“My god, we’ve been doing this for 94 years now and the last two or three years have been sort of a rough ride, and we need to get back on track,” he said. “The arbitrator should be the science of how this is done.”

Commissioner Behnken agrees that whatever approach is put in place should be science based. 

“I think it would be inappropriate for us to depart too far from current practices with this interim strategy. I really want feedback from our full MSAB process as we define the long-term harvest strategy,” Behnken noted. “But I think we recognize that we need an interim policy because it’s been so difficult to find an agreement in recent years between the U.S. and Canada.”

Both Behnken and Alverson say it’s unlikely that next month’s meeting will result in an agreement on a new policy. Both say they also want to consult with fishermen and other stakeholders as well.

The MSAB is due to discuss the topic at its meeting in May. The advisory board will likely play a role in forming an interim policy, and will receive more direction from commissioners after their discussion in April.

Aaron Bolton has moved on to a new position in Montana; he is no longer KBBI News Director. KBBI is currently seeking a News Director, and Kathleen Gustafson is filling in for the time being.