Story last updated at 12/5/2012 - 2:12 pm
Halibut catches could be cut by 33 percent next year if proposed numbers get the nod by the International Pacific Halibut Commission next month. That would mean a coast-wide harvest of just 22.7 million pounds for fisheries in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Alaska's share of the halibut catch would be 17.4 million pounds, down from about 25 million this year.
Unlike past years, staff scientists are not making catch limit recommendations by separate areas. Instead, they are providing "assessment and advise frameworks" to the commission that embodies the risks and benefits associated with choices for harvests in certain areas.
"We are trying to provide a link between previous years and this year using what's being called a Blue Line out of the decision table," said Bruce Leaman, IPHC executive director after an interim meeting last week. "That is the application of our current harvest policy using the rates in each area to the results of this year's stock assessments. So that is what the Blue Line represents - but it is not a recommendation by the staff, it is just one of the choices we are putting forward for the Commission to decide on in January."
Leaman said the most significant thing that came out of this year's halibut stock assessment was the solution to a "retrospective problem" that has been plaguing the stock for the past several years.
"That means we were continually overestimating the stock size and having to reduce that estimate over time, and we were not capturing the correct level of estimated biomass," he said. "The result of that has been the trends we have been presenting to people has shown this upward bend to the trend of stock biomass that is not there. In solving the retroactive problem, it essentially unfolded the end of that curve and so it's now in a fairly flat phase and the stock decline has been fairly continuous from there. But we have made some big steps towards getting back to a correct harvest rate."
If the proposed numbers hold for 2013, it will add up to a nearly 70 percent reduction in Pacific halibut catches over the past three years. The outlook for the immediate future is grim as stock assessments appear to be on a very flat trajectory.
Here are the low ends of the 2013 "blue line" catch assessments by Alaska region in millions of pounds with comparisons to this year in parentheses:
Area 2C (Southeast Alaska) 3.12 (2.624)
Area 3A (Central Gulf) 9.24 (11.9)
Area 3B (Western Gulf) 2.73 (5)
4A (Aleutian Islands) 850,000 (1.567)
4B (Aleutian Islands) 620,000 ( 1.869)
4CDE (Bering Sea) 850,000 (2.465)
See the complete halibut reports at www.iphc.int/home.html
Pay up time - Alaska fishermen who hold Individual Fishing Quotas (also called catch shares) of halibut, sablefish (black cod) and Bering Sea crab pay an annual fee to the federal government to cover the management and enforcement costs for those fisheries.
The coverage fee, which is capped at 3 percent, is based on dock prices and averaged across the state. Fishermen determine how much they owe by multiplying the annual fee by the dockside value of all their landings. The percentage is slightly higher this year at 2.1 percent, compared to 1.6 percent last year.
According to Troie Zuniga, fee coordinator at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau, bills were sent to 2,114 Alaska longliners, 49 less than last year.
The 2012 halibut and black cod fisheries yielded $5.0 million for coverage costs. This year's average price for halibut is $5.87 per pound compared to $6.56 last year. For sablefish, the dock averaged $4.11 per pound, down from $5.15.
The overall values for both fisheries took a big dip - for halibut, a value of $137 million are down $57 million from last year. For sablefish, a value of $109 million is a drop of $15 million. Longliners have until the end of January to pay their fishing bills.
For Bering Sea king and snow crab, the 2011/2012 coverage fee was 1.23 percent for a dockside value of $262 million, a decrease of about $25 million from the previous season. Zuniga said bills went out to 20 Bering Sea crabbers who have until the end of July to pay their coverage fees.
Fish prices - The first thing fishermen want to know is the base price for their fish, but sometimes it can be tough to come by. The state Department of Revenue/Tax Division compiles prices for every kind of fish and shellfish caught by Alaska fishermen by region. The prices are not in-season; they show a snapshot of each previous year.
Here's a sampler from the 50 species tracked in 2011, not including salmon: Alaska halibut went from a low of $6.37 a pound in the Bering Sea to a high of $6.96 in the Ketchikan/Craig area. The highest price for sablefish was $8.28 at Petersburg/Wrangell to a low of $7.40 at Kodiak. Octopus fetched 63-cents at Kodiak, 7-cents a pound for squid and 44-cents a pound for big skates. Gray cod got the lowest price at just 11-cents a pound at Petersburg/Wrangell to a high of 58-cents at Juneau/Yakutat.
Lingcod went for a low of 41-cents at Kodiak up to $1.98 at Sitka/Pelican, a 97-cent increase from the previous year. Alaska pollock averaged 17-cents at Dutch Harbor and Kodiak.
Of the 13 different types of rockfish listed, yellow eye (red snapper) paid fishermen the most at $1.60 per pound at Sitka/Pelican. The low was a nickel for northern rockfish in the Bering Sea. Sea cucumbers paid $6.21 at Ketchikan/Craig, up nearly $4 a pound. For crab, Kodiak paid the most for Dungeness at $2.39; the dungy price was $2.24 at Petersburg/Wrangell. Kodiak also paid the most for Tanner crab at $3.04. Snow crab averaged $2.71 at Dutch Harbor, up from 1.34 last season.
The priciest Alaska seafood in 2011? Bristol Bay red king crab priced at a whopping $10.80 a pound, a 30% increase. Geoduck clams were next at $10.43 at Ketchikan, up nearly $4. The lowest valued Alaska species were rex sole and sculpin, both fetching 2 pennies per pound.
Find all the fish and crab prices at:
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.