Of halibut in 2018.

This time of year is always a busy period in fisheries management as proposals are reviewed and plans are developed for the season to come. In an increasingly crowded spectrum of issues important to the BC marine recreational fishery being considered, in recent weeks several groundfish concerns have been prominent, beginning with halibut.

In late January the International Pacific Halibut Commission (Canada & US) held its 94th annual meeting, in Portland. Against a background of declining recruitment to and abundance of this fishery resource, for only the second time in the history of this particular treaty process the two countries were unable to reach agreement on allowable catch shares between them. While it is apparent that halibut in the northeast Pacific Ocean are experiencing a low productivity phase, something that all wildlife goes through in the eternal “peaks and valleys” cycle of abundance, the situation is aggravated by the unwillingness of Alaska to deal with the large and persistent issue of halibut by-catch, usually high numbers of smaller fish, caught in fisheries directed at other species. The numbers are truly large and given that, as a generalization, halibut migrate in a northwest to southeast direction across their range this issue has big implications for recruitment to and allowable harvest along Canada’s Pacific coast.

In the absence of a bilateral agreement DFO has taken the precautionary approach and made the decision to reduce the Canadian total allowable catch (TAC, all fisheries) to 7.1 million pounds, down from 7.45 million pounds in 2017. After the various fishery allocations have been accounted for, including most importantly the 85/15% commercial/recreational sharing formula used by the government, the recreational fishery allocation for 2018 is 928,000 pounds. Given that the maximum size and bag limit regulations in place last year in combination with a 1.18 million pound recreational catch allocation resulted in an early closure (September 8), it quickly became obvious there were going to be some painful discussions regarding halibut opportunities in 2018.

These took place this past weekend at the most recent main Sport Fishing Advisory Board meeting, beginning at the Groundfish/Shellfish working group session on the Friday. Needless to say there were a variety of opinions in how best to utilize the allowed recreational catch share but once again maximizing season length was a priority consideration and there’s a number of variables like weather, price of fuel and how good salmon fishing is that nobody can predict and which have potential impact on the amount of effort directed at catching halibut. Of course this isn’t the first time this sort of discussion has had to occur, albeit with less constraints previously, and working from a decade of experience and with some maximum size and probable rate of catch scenarios developed by DFO groundfish staff the SFAB volunteers developed a set of recommendations which, based on past experience, will be implemented by the department.

The season start date will be March 1, a one month delay, and the annual limit of halibut remains at 6 fish with a daily bag limit of 1. A number of participants advocated for a possession limit (in possession away from home) of one fish also, in order to allow for a larger maximum size limit but in the end the recommendation is for continuing a 2 fish possession limit, with the smaller of the fish having a maximum size of 83 cm/33 inches, about a 15-pound fish. The larger size limit on one of the two fish is 115 cm/46 inches, a halibut in the low 40-pound range.

Assuming the recommendations are implemented by DFO, because the halibut allocation is for the calendar year but the regulations are linked to the license year (April 1 – March 31) the season will begin March 1 using last year’s regulations in which the larger fish maximum size limit is 133 cm/53 inches or approximately a 70-pound fish. Effort in the early season is generally low so hopefully there won’t be too much of a gold rush mentality by those looking to harvest a larger halibut and accelerate the landed poundage, with potential early closure implications later in the year.

As halibut go a fish in the low forty pound range is not a large one and there will be lots of disappointed anglers, especially when they have to release a much larger halibut, that they won’t be allowed to keep good-sized fish. The combination of last years early closure along with what are expected to be this year’s highly restrictive size limits has ensured the need to change the commercial and recreational fisheries inter-sectoral halibut allocation policy, so expect hear more about this in the not so distant future. No argument has ever been made that the value of a pound of halibut caught in the commercial fishery is worth more to the Canadian economy than that which might be caught in the recreational fishery, so why should several hundred commercial fishing Canadians have control over 85% of the resource that a hundred thousand or more anglers wish to access via the recreational fishery?

The other challenging issue dealt with at the recent main SFAB meeting concerns management of what are termed outside yelloweye rockfish, meaning those caught along the west coast of Vancouver Island and on the central and north coasts; these fish are now recognized as genetically distinct from those living in inside waters, i.e. Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Strait. Like all of the some three-dozen rockfish species, yelloweye’s are very long-lived, non-migratory, slow to mature and with erratic spawning rates and, crucially, are prone to barotrauma or the inability to deal with pressure change when brought up from the deeps.

The outside yelloweye stock (OYE) has been assessed as in need of the utmost protection, no easy matter when they are readily caught by those fishing for halibut, lingcod and other groundfish species. Hook and line fishermen of all kinds are now paying the price of the gross negligence by DFO groundfish staff several decades ago, when they allowed OYE harvest in the range of 800 – 1,100 tons per year in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s, almost all by various commercial fisheries. Now the demographic shoe has dropped and DFO wants to cap the all-fishery (commercial, First Nations and recreational) harvest to 100 tons per year, with the recreational share cap based on past sector harvest averages of just 13 tons annually. This is going to be close to mission impossible without draconian measures such as large area closures because even with the recent year bag limit of 1 yelloweye per angler per day the assessed recreational catch is running at 50+ tons per year.

In an effort to avoid some of the worst possible effects of probable new management measures, various recommendations were made to DFO, including the mandatory use of descending devices by those anglers specifically bottom fishing. There is a growing body of evidence that a rockfish quickly returned to depth and released has a pretty good chance at surviving the experience and there are a number of devices on the market that enable the angler to do this fairly easily. Expect to hear more on this challenging issue before the outside fishery summer season gets going in earnest.