Fishing for halibut is a rich experience whether you are a visitor to Alaska, a local fishing halibut for personal use, or a commercial fisherman. But abundance can be deceptive. According to a 2010 report by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), the number of halibut in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska has declined by 50% over the past 20 years.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) allocates target halibut harvest levels in terms of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), calculated as 20% of the estimated mature halibut population after regional surveys. Subsistence, non-guided sport fishing, by-catch and research are accounted for first, fish are then allocated for commercial and guided-sport fishermen. Currently, guided sport-fishermen in Southeast Alaska hold 18.3% of the TAC and 81.7% of the harvest is allocated to commercial fishermen. The TAC in Southeast Alaska has gone down almost 70% since 2006.
While commercial harvest is much larger for the entire region, sport fishing can have an important impact on localized areas. According to statistics kept by the IPHC and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the number of pounds of sport-caught fish in 2014 comprised 50% of the total harvest for combined areas of Icy Strait, Glacier Bay and Cross Sound, matching commercial catch in that area. Halibut sustainability is the responsibility of all fishermen.
Halibut fishing in Southeast Alaska often occurs within a 2-hour boat ride from communities, especially where tourism is popular, creating risk for local area halibut depletions. Regulations do not protect against local area depletions because the fishery is managed over large regions. Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) includes all waters from Cape Spencer to Ketchikan and extends 200 miles off-shore into the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, Southcentral Alaska (area 3A) includes Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska and waters around the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak – an arc 750 miles long. Total Allowable Catch is determined for each of these regions without regard to areas where fishing pressure is greater.
The existing prevention tool is the Local Area Management Plan (LAMP), a document created through community consensus and designed to limit the risk of halibut depletion in localized areas. While the tool exists the process is arduous and only Sitka has ever created one.
Management on a smaller scale is the solution – monitoring that will track halibut populations in localized areas. The allowable catch could then vary among areas depending on the condition of the halibut population there. But federal funding by the U.S. and Canada isn’t adequate for IPHC to survey and manage at that level.
The justification for the existing large-region management is that halibut are assumed to be panmictic, that is to say, they migrate and mix, mating randomly with halibut throughout the region and with larvae dispersing widely along the coast of Alaska. This way of thinking legitimizes management of all of the halibut in Southeast Alaska as one population, but the perspective may be too simplistic. Research suggests that after their winter migration, halibut often return to the same area where they summered the year before, making halibut sustainability an important issue near Alaska communities.