Of Halibut and Yelloweye Rockfish

Of Halibut and Yelloweye rockfish.

Switching gears from the recent coverage of Fraser River chinook, there’s a couple of groundfish management changes that occurred earlier this spring that warrant some explanation, the first being in regard to the recreational fishery for halibut.

As most anglers know the apportioning of the allowable halibut catch between the commercial and recreational fisheries on Canada’s Pacific coast is enacted by the halibut allocation framework, currently on an 85/15% basis respectively. I won’t go into that issue now, but it means that each fishery has a maximum annual poundage cap derived via a series of calculations stemming from the national TAC (total allowable catch) to Canada negotiated under the terms of the treaty with the US.

The good news is that after a period of decline the halibut stock in this part of the northeast Pacific Ocean appears to be on the increase, albeit slowly, and in consequence the recreational share for 2016 increased by 37,400 pounds to 1,100,950 pounds. Sounds like a lot but in reality it could be caught quite quickly and, because the overarching management goal is to maximize the length of recreational season (customarily February 1 to December 31) and to avoid a mid-summer closure, various limit and size restrictions have come into place in recent years.

I won’t go into those in this column either but a number of anglers have asked me why, if the recreational TAC increased slightly this year, there was a reduction in the maximum size limit, from 90 cm. to 83 cm., on one of the two halibut an angler is allowed to have in possession away from home. That’s a fair question to ask so here’s my understanding of how this change came about.

Over time the significance of catch monitoring, the recording of all catch both retained and released, has become evermore important and of all the fisheries on Canada’s Pacific coast the recreational fishery is perhaps the most challenging to assess simply because of its size (several hundred thousand participants), complexity (multiple fin and shellfish species), geographic scope (everywhere) and timing (frequently much or all of the year). There simply aren’t the resources in these fiscally constrained times to adequately monitor the regional recreational fishery by conventional creel surveys, although they retain an important core role.

Several other strategies have come into use in recent years, one of which is called iRec. With recreational fishing licenses now only available on-line and with e-mail a widespread means of communication DFO has taken advantage of a new contact data base to conduct a catch monitoring survey via the internet.

As with anything new caution must be taken when reviewing the results, the comparison with conventional creel surveys a reason why they remain so important, but iRec offers the capability of measuring recreational catch in times and areas when creel surveys aren’t in use. Perhaps in another column I’ll review iRec more thoroughly but for today the key point is that it identified recreational halibut catch in recent past years that hadn’t been included previously.

There was considerable debate earlier this year between DFO staff and those volunteers in the Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB, the community-based advisory and consultation process between the department and the fishery) halibut working group about just how much additional catch was being assessed by this new method. However it was agreed there’s certainly some and enough to alter the previously held assumptions about the rate and size of the recreational catch so, faced with either a shorter season or some other measure to keep the recreational catch within its poundage cap, the decision was made to lower the maximum size limit on the smaller of the two halibut in possession.

The weight difference as a result of the size change is about 6 pounds (20lbs/90cm to 14lbs/83 cm). Given that the majority of halibut retained by anglers are far smaller than much advertising about the fishery would otherwise suggest, when multiplied out over several thousand fish this will have the required effect while maintaining opportunity as measured in time and the maximum size of the larger fish (133cm/70lbs) remains unchanged.

The other change this year concerns the outside population of Yelloweye rockfish (a.k.a. “red snapper”, a term that unfortunately is often used to identify any orange colored rockfish of which there are several species). One of the largest and most long-lived of the rockfish species, in 2008 Yelloweye rockfish were designated into two separate populations, inside (Queen Charlotte Strait, Johnstone Strait, Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait) and outside (everywhere else on Canada’s Pacific coast). In common with many of the other rockfish Yelloweye have been heavily overfished for years and because both populations are now listed as of Special Concern under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) new harvest regulations have been put into effect. Big changes to inside rockfish management occurred about ten years ago but the outside stocks were less affected until now.

In summary, the estimated catch of outside Yelloweye in all fisheries in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, was 287 tons. DFO has estimated that the maximum sustainable harvest is 100 tons per year so a large overall reduction is required. The catch in stock assessment surveys and First Nation food fisheries is estimated at about 30 tons combined, leaving a 70-ton harvest to be shared between the commercial and recreational fisheries; the estimate of the recreational catch of outside Yelloweye rockfish in recent years is about 50 tons.

In consequence, along WCVI the daily limit of Yelloweye rockfish has been reduced to one (from 2), while the aggregate daily limit of rockfish remains at three. One the north coast, above Cape Caution, the Yelloweye daily limit has been reduced to 2 (from 3), with the aggregate rockfish limit remaining at five.

Because rockfish, including Yelloweye, are frequently caught unintentionally while fishing for other species and because of their susceptibility to barotrauma, the inability to adjust to rapid pressure change, the onus will be on anglers to start utilizing some of the new tools available to release rockfish at depth in order to give them a better chance of survival and this topic I intend to review in a future column.