Fish Factor: Harvest boost anticipated in Pacific halibut fishery

The Pacific halibut stock appears to be on an upswing and could result in increased catches for most regions in 2022.

At the interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission from Nov. 30 through Dec. 1, scientists gave an overview of the summer setline survey that targets nearly 2,000 stations over three-months. The Pacific resource is modelled as a single stock extending from northern California to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, including all inside waters of the Strait of Georgia and the Salish Sea.

The survey results showed that coastwide combined numbers per setline increased by 17% from 2020 to 2021, reversing declines over the past four years. The coastwide weights of legal sized halibut (over 32 inches) also increased by 4%.

“We’re seeing some new trends this year,” said Ian Stewart, lead scientist for the IPHC which has managed the fishery for the U.S. and Canada since 1923. “The first is we saw some improving trends from our survey that correspond to a shift both in the fish and in the fishery to younger fish.”

“The current stock reflects less productivity from the growth of fish that are already in the stock than from the numbers of fish that are recruiting into the stock,” Stewart explained. “And this is the opposite of what we’ve seen over the last several years. The survey and the fishery have been accessing fish that were growing older. That’s now reversed for this year, reflecting this change from older fish to younger fish moving into the stock.”

The younger fish are from a 2012 class that will be increasingly important to future spawning projections.

“However, we are just now getting a more solid read on the magnitude of this year class and the information in the upcoming years will continue to improve our understanding of just how strong it is,” Stewart said.

Another trend is a shift in halibut distribution back to the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska (Region 3) where most of the stock occurs.

“That stock distribution is more similar to 10 to15 years ago than we’ve seen over the last several years,” Stewart said, adding that the survey showed a 28% increase in halibut abundance in that region.

“We started to see an increase in 2020 but it’s become much more pronounced leading up to a proportion of the stock in Region 3 that is larger than anything we’ve seen in almost a decade, and particularly in the Western Central Gulf,” he said.

Stewart called the 2021 survey “the most effective we have put on the water with the largest information content.”

The coastwide halibut catch limit for this year was increased by 6.5% to 39 million pounds for all users. For commercial fishermen in Alaska, the catch limit was set at 19.6 million pounds and all regions except for the Bering Sea saw increased catches.

IPHC data through Nov. 1 show the total take by all users was nearing 38 million pounds. Alaska commercial fishermen had taken 92% of their allotment and recreational catches were estimated at 7.6 million pounds, up by 43% from 2020. Halibut bycatch for this year was at 3.5 million pounds, down 23%.

The fishery was extended by one month this year from March 6 to Dec. 7. Final halibut tallies for 2022 will be set at the IPHC annual meeting Jan. 24-28 in Bellevue, Washington.

Bycatch begone!

The IPHC sets annual halibut catch limits, but federal fishery managers set Alaska’s bycatch caps in waters from 3- to 200-miles offshore.

Twenty-five state legislators have submitted a letter to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council asking them to choose an option that will reduce the more than 4 million pounds of halibut bycatch that can be taken by bottom trawlers in the Bering Sea.

From Dec. 9-13, the NPFMC will continue its six years of discussion and “take final action” on a suite of options, one of which, (Alternative 4) will remove the trawl fleet’s fixed cap and have them abide by the same rules as all other users whose catches vary each year depending on the health of the halibut resource.

“It is clear that bycatch is an issue of blatant wanton waste that is impacting our Alaskan fisheries like never before!” said Rep. Sarah Vance of Homer who submitted the letter along with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka. “That is the reason I’ve penned this fourth letter to the NPFMC, in addition to calling for a House Fisheries Committee meeting regarding bycatch overall, that took place a few weeks ago. This bipartisan and bicameral letter shows how important good stewardship of our state’s fisheries is to Alaskans.”

On a related salmon note

From the offices of Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Sullivan, and Rep. Don Young:

“The Alaska congressional delegation will host a salmon roundtable on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Unalakleet, and Chignik River watersheds Dec. 8 and 9 beginning at 12:30 p.m. AKST each day. The agenda will include updates from the delegation, a community leader panel, and federal and state research presentations followed by a Q&A. This event aims to allow experts and impacted communities to join together and share information in one (virtual) room as we all work together to forge the best path forward for this critical resource. Agenda and additional information to come. This event is open to the public.” Please RSVP to murkowski_events@murkowski.senate.gov.

One hundred percent recyclable shelf-ready packaging on OBI’s domestic canned salmon brands and export products. Photo courtesy of OBI

Planet-friendly packaging

OBI Seafoods, which operates 10 processing plants in Alaska, has met its goal for 100% recyclable packaging on all of its nine canned salmon brands.

Starting in January, all cans, lids, labels, holding trays and shrink wrap are included and any plastics used contain at least 30% recyclable materials.

“The company is committed to ensuring that its packaging has the lowest possible impact on the planet, and will help their customers reach their sustainability goals,” CEO Mark Palmer said.

The move also means OBI’s canned products are exempt from a new overseas tax in the UK on single use plastics that goes into effect next April.

Meanwhile, packaging made from chitosan, that multi-use biopolymer found in crab shells, has caught the eye of investors.

Cruz Foam, a California-based packaging company, has attracted $2.5 million in seed money to begin producing fully-compostable packages to replace petroleum-based Styrofoam at a similar price.

The crab shell-based material provides the same strength and protective properties but features a nearly 98 percent average bio-breakdown with no adverse effects to the soil, the company said in a press release.

Cruz Foam said that they are taking on plastic pollution “at the root” by inventing a versatile, earth-compatible product that requires no recycling and “will help set the standard for the future of packaging and sustainable materials.” The crab shells come from Alaska fisheries and are provided by Tidal Vision, said CEO Craig Kasberg.