IPHC: End in Sight for Steep Halibut Quota Cuts

By Sean Murphy
Pacific halibut fishermen have had little reason to smile over the past few years, as declines in stock coupled with corrections in estimates by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) scientists have led to a steep drop in quotas.

At IPHC’s recent meeting on 28 to 29 November, new data seems to suggest even more quota reductions for 2013, but there is some hope that the decline will level off after that.

“We’re on a really flat trajectory,” Bruce Leaman, IPHC executive director told SeafoodSource.

IPHC is expected to set 2013 quotas at its annual meeting, scheduled for 21 to 25 January 2013 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Among other revelations at the November meeting, scientists discussed a revamped system of biomass estimation. Until now the scientists were using a policy and model that led to inflated and inaccurate results. Now, said Leaman, the scientists have completed their new model, and expect numbers of fish and their size to be reported more reliably.

“I think the staff feel a lot better about the assessment,” he said.

In addition, the scientists will not be making a quota recommendation this year. Instead they will present their findings in a chart that IPHC commissioners will use to determine the 2013 quota.

Regardless of how the numbers are presented, they don’t look good. Leaman said the revision in the assessment process is leading to a 30 percent reduction in biomass estimates compared to this time last year.

Leaman stressed that the actual amount of biomass hasn’t changed that drastically — it just looks that way because the new system produces different numbers — but the overall 2013 catch limit will have to drop quite a bit to account for the change. While Leaman did not offer a recommended catch limit, he said the commissioners would very likely produce a quota somewhere in the range of 22.7 million pounds.

If they do set the quota at that level, it would be the next step of a precipitous drop over the past few years, a 30 percent reduction compared to the 2012 limit of 33.8 million pounds, which itself was a drop from the 41-million-pound limit in 2011.

Leaman did provide some good news, however: Declines in fish population and weight that have been occurring since 1996 appear to be leveling off, and with the new assessment program in place, numbers for next year are unlikely to be as drastically different as the halibut industry has come to expect.

That means there’s a good chance that the 2014 quota won’t drop as much, if it drops at all, a welcome development to the industry leaders that Leaman said have been unhappy with the recent trends.

Still, Leaman hopes halibut fishermen will embrace the new system and look forward to less turbulent years to come.

“They may not like the numbers, but they want the management program to work,” he said.