The commercial halibut quota for the IFQ longline fishery in Alaska dipped about ten percent overall for 2020, to just over 17 million pounds. Though halibut can’t be targeted until March 14, around 1.4 million pounds have already been killed incidentally in other fisheries that are already open, according to data from onboard observers compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The largest share of halibut mortality so far in 2020, as it has been in at least the previous four years, comes from the non-pelagic, or bottom, trawl sector. Non-pelagic trawlers are responsible for almost 1.3 million pounds of halibut mortality, with pelagic, or midwater, trawlers targeting mostly pollock accounting for 163,000 pounds. Longliners in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, mainly chasing Pacific cod, have added 28,000 pounds to the total, and pot boats caught just over 7,000 pounds.
January’s total across all areas was down from each of the previous four years, dating back to 2017, but February’s one million pounds of halibut bycatch mortality was the second highest of the four, just behind 2019 and considerably ahead of 2018 and 2017. This is especially unusual given that federal fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska targeting Pacific cod have been closed for the 2020 season, leaving very little fishing pressure from longliners and pot boats. Halibut bycatch mortality in Area 630, covering a huge area of the Central Gulf of Alaska south of Homer, is the highest of any area so far this year at about 400,000 pounds, ninety-nine percent caught by non-pelagic trawlers targeting arrowtooth flounder and other inexpensive groundfish.
February’s bycatch of king salmon is the highest since 2017, with 14,333 kings reported by observers. The largest numbers were split between three areas, with Area 620 southwest of Kodiak and areas 509 and 517 southeast of the Pribilofs in the Bering Sea each averaging about 4,000 kings. Most were caught by pelagic trawlers targeting pollock. Just under 3,000 kings were caught across all areas in January.
270,000 bairdi crab have been recorded as bycatch in all areas of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska since January 1. Non-pelagic trawlers in Area 630 south of Homer caught 99,000. NMFS also recorded 99,000 opilio crab, 20,000 red king crab, and 54 blue king crab as incidental catch across the state.