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Halibut harvest limits continue to decline amid poor population surveys

W. Rapp

Fishermen are once again looking at lower catch limits for halibut this year. That’s after harvest levels were cut last year too. KMXT’s Brian Venua reports that news comes as fishery managers say the species had its worst recruitment in decades.

Catch limits for Pacific halibut this year are down to about 35.3 million pounds across the entire fishery, which stretches from California and up to the Bering Sea. That’s nearly 2 million fewer pounds, or about 4.6% less, than last year.

“Our total estimate of the amount of spawning biomass, coastwide, is the lowest that we have measured in the last 40 years,” said Kurt Iverson, a fishery management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s normal for fish populations to fluctuate, but halibut have had multiple years of low spawning rates. Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing the population decline, but widely agree that any harvest needs to have conservation in mind.

Catch limits were slashed last year too – the limits for the 2023 season was about 10.3%, or about 4 million pounds, lower than the year before.

That’s not the only issue for harvesters this year, though. On top of having fewer fish, Iverson said population surveys indicate the fish are smaller than usual.

“We have seen, for quite a number of years now, relatively low weight at age, so halibut are growing slower than they were 20 years ago,” he said. “And those two things are the primary drivers behind lower biomass and then consequently lower catches.”

Halibut harvest limits are set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which breaks the ocean-wide quota into several sections. One section sets the limit for California, Oregon, and Washington altogether, while another includes the western Canadian coast. There are also six major sections in Alaska. The commission set this year’s harvest level at a meeting in late January, while the fishing season begins in mid-March.

Iverson said fishermen have been generally receptive to lower take while populations struggle.

“They [fishermen] expressed unanimous caution, but to their great credit, they’re doing so with a long-term view of the future,” he said.

Because scientists don’t know what’s caused the poor spawning numbers, he said it’s impossible to tell when, or if, the fishery will have strong recruitment again. Iverson said that he expects to see conservative levels of harvest for the foreseeable future.