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​Pacific Halibut – The North Coast Dilemma

ntroduction: Two days from now, on July 31, the California Recreational Season will be shut down on Pacific Halibut for a month, not to reopen until September 1. This will have serious economic effects on the Northern California area, and anglers are raising the question; ”Why are we losing opportunity and facing increasing Regulatory Action and loss of opportunity when the survey science does not support this action?”

To answer this question, a brief review of history and background will better focus the discussion. California has a long history of halibut harvest dating back to the late 1890’s. The annual rate of harvest for over fifty years was 400,000 pounds, with 80% being landed in the Eureka area. During and after WWII they were overharvested and the commercial landings dropped to a mere 2500 pounds annually, essentially wiping out the commercial fishery. There was little recreational harvest at that time. Now, fast forward to the 1970’s when the allocation system for the Pacific States, Canada and Alaska were hammered out, with a few percent of the total harvest granted to the Pacific States, the rest in Canada and Alaska. During the last decade, the recreational interest in CA has focused on halibut, as salmon fishing declined, resulting in the small CA allocation of 6,000 lbs. being annually exceeded. As such, the regulatory bodies are now tightening controls on CA to reduce the harvest level, with loss of time on the water and opportunity. Is this necessary and appropriate?

Call for Action: [Editor's Note: The decision to reduce our catch of Pacific Halibut off the North Coast is wrong and we anglers must act now to prevent further restrictions by the regulatory agencies such as the International Halibut Commission, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Please take a few minutes to write to the PFMC and the CA DFW to make your beliefs known and ask them to step forward on our behalf. Public comments must be received by Aug 15, 2014. use this email address for the PFMC pfmc.comments@noaa.gov, make reference to Item K.1 and the Halibut CSP (catch sharing plan). Copy your message to the CDFW director at director@wildlife.ca.gov. See author's instructions below.]

The three Pacific States have historically been allocated about 1-3% of the total annual harvest. This allocation is studied annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) that sets all the harvest quotas and manages Pacific Halibut. Both the USA and Canada have ceded authority to the IPHC for halibut management and regulatory action. The Pacific States are allocated about 1M lbs. annually, or slightly less, which is then further divided up among Washington, Oregon and California by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The PFMC set the current allocation scheme back in the late 1970’s when the halibut fishery in CA was overfished and Washington had the bulk of the fishery. Since that time the population has rebuilt and shifted a bit south into Oregon (and we think into California), but the allocation has not changed. Oregon has negotiated over the past thirty years to gradually shift more allocation in their favor, but CA has been absent in these discussions.

Allocation formula: Currently, the 2A allocation by the IPHC is 960,000 lbs. The WA Indian tribes get 35% (336,000 lbs.) leaving a remaining 65% (624,000 lbs.) to the Pacific States. Of that 65%, the three states are subdivided as follows:

WA 36.6% = 228,234 lbs.

OR 30.7% = 191,568 lbs.

CA 1.0% = 6,240 lbs.

Commercial 31.7% = 197,808 lbs. (all Commercial halibut are caught in WA and OR)

As can be readily seen, CA has a tiny portion of the allocation, and the immediate question is WHY?

This will be addressed a bit later in the discussion.

Regulatory Action: For the past two decades, CA has had approximately 6,000 lbs. annually +/- a few hundred pounds. It was assumed we harvested all of our small allocation, and no one really paid much attention to the harvest amount. Until about 2004, recreation anglers in CA did little halibut fishing. A few enterprising individuals began to put in effort to locate and develop a method on how to locate and catch these fish. Also, Pacific Halibut began to appear in higher numbers not only in CA but along the southern coast of OR as well. Further development of the fishery occurred in CA when the salmon seasons were dismal in the latter half of the decade, with no fishing in 2008 and only ten days in 2009. Thus, halibut fishing took on new importance and we began to target them with renewed interest. As such, our success was apparent in the harvest numbers. CA began to harvest in excess of 25,000 lbs. annually and that has remained until present. The IPHC became concerned when they learned of the harvest amount in Southern OR and CA. They put pressure on the PFMC to take some regulatory action to bring us back into our small allocation of 6,000 lbs. In 2013 the PFMC took action to close off August in 2014, since that was the highest month of harvest (about 42%). Also, the IPHC undertook to do a survey in CA north of Cape Mendocino to the OR border. A survey had never been done before, so there was little expectation of much catch. To their surprise, over 100,000 lbs. of exploitable biomass was discovered. That means that CA has 13.8% of the survey biomass of 720,000 lbs. for the three Pacific States (2A area) while our allocation overall is only 0.62% of the 2A allocation, or 1% of the non-tribal fishery.

The results of the IPHC survey in 2013 were not released unit December of 2013, while the Regulatory Action of the PFMC was promulgated in November, a month before. This conflict of information and action is an artifact of when the two difference Regulatory Bodies schedule their meetings. We, in CA, believe we are not being fairly treated with such a tiny portion of the allocation. We expected that the allocation would be increased in 2014 for CA and that the August closure would be rescinded. However, WA and OR perceive that these are their fish, and they have no interest or intention to release allocation to CA. In effect, they are allowed to catch the CA quota. Clearly, this has elevated the discussion into some very heated rhetoric at the PFMC meetings between the industry groups.

Economic impact: Over this past decade, halibut has become a very important fishery for the CA area, both recreationally and economically. The past several years have demonstrated that about 50% of the clients reserving with the Charter Fleet are coming specifically for the opportunity to catch halibut. When the August closure was announced this spring, many of these customers cancelled their trips in August and did not reschedule for a variety of reasons. This has severe impact on the small ports of Trinidad and Shelter Cove, where August is a crucial month for their economic success. When salmon success falls off in August, halibut is the emphasis. Now August, their busiest month, has been taken away from the ports and Charter Fleet for halibut. They could lose 50% of their business in August, depending upon the salmon fishery. When salmon seasons are poor, this could have a magnified effect. The full impact won’t be known until later this year when the effects of the August closure are realized. At $160.00 per customer, plus the lost Value Added revenue of tackle, motels, restaurants, fuel etc., this is expected to be a substantial loss of revenue for the Northern CA area. A local fishing group, HASA, is considering paying for a Professional Economic Study to answer this question. I would suggest that a direct loss of over $200,000 to the local economy would not be surprising. When the total related costs are evaluated, the total could be multiples of this estimated amount.

Where do we go from here?
To focus the issue, consider the following:

  • With 13.7% of the biomass in 2A why does CA only have 1% of the non-tribal allocation?
  • Why don’t the CDFW and CA PFMC Delegation have a science based strategy to improve our allocation?
  • Why is the current effort at the PFMC focused on more closures in CA rather than a more equitable allocation?
  • Why did CA Representatives vacate any interest in our allocation for 25 of the past 27 years?
  • Why is CA being provided an obviously unfair allocation that would appear to be in violation of Federal Law (the Magnuson-Stevens Act)?
  • When are our State Officials going to stand up in our behalf in the political arena of the PFMC?
  • Why is WA and OR allowed to harvest the 94,000 lbs. of halibut deemed to be in CA waters by the IPHC survey in 2013?

Observations:

  • OR and WA perceive that the halibut in 2A belong to them, and that we are too late in the game to make substantial changes to the Catch Sharing Plan (CSP).
  • OR and WA resent that CA fisherman are demanding a higher allocation.
  • CA is outside the WA Tribal halibut area and why should we not make an argument for the entire 100,000 lbs. of survey biomass located in our waters?
  • With 14 votes on the PFMC, CA has only 4 votes, hence we are politically at a disadvantage
  • Politically, we are outgunned and outvoted by the “tyranny of the majority”
  • The CA Official Delegation seems unwilling to make demands and upset the “harmonious relationship” they have with other PFMC delegates from the other States.
  • Discussions on halibut are “off line” and out of the public eye. We are being denied access to the process and don’t have any information as to what is being discussed behind closed doors.
  • CDFW has encouraged HASA (Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers) to pay for an economic impact study to plead with the IPHC to grant the 2A zone more halibut. The study could cost between $20,000 and $30,000. One has to ask why is a small fishing community expected to front this expense? (HASA only has about 100 paid members)
  • The IPHC considers this allocation issue a local concern with the PFMC and they are already providing the 2A zone with 31% more allocation than the science survey suggests we should have. From the IPHC perspective, why should they agree to provide more than 1,000,000 lbs. annually, when the science does not support this action, and where will it come from? And, who will it be taken from…There are not extra halibut available to dole out to the 2A zone.

The PFMC is scheduled in September to take preliminary action on the halibut allocation and management measures for the 2015 season within the 2A zone. This action will be adopted in November, prior to the IPHC 2014 survey statistics being released. The PFMC has refused to discuss the allocation in public meetings and will only speak to increased regulatory efforts to reduce CA harvest to the current 6,240 lbs. allocation. We, the public, will not have the benefit of knowing what “off-line” discussions are taking place this summer until the September meeting occurs, after the briefing book and agenda is published and we are past the time for public comment. We are being denied information and access to the process by our own State Officials. The political excuses and the perceived advantages to the Delegation members may seem justified to them for this decision, but it excludes the public from the process. Frankly, I take issue with being denied access to discussions and decisions that affect us as anglers without our knowledge or input. Based upon past history, I have little reason to suspect that we are going to receive any substantial improvement to our allocation from the PFMC, and we will have to face increased loss of halibut opportunity and suffer further economic loss in the 2015 year.

Politically, we are a small area of the State and do not have Political or Economic clout, as does the Southern CA area with millions of voters and a substantial Charter Fleet. We have the shortest and most restrictive seasons in all of CA and the Pacific States. That is reality, and I don’t know what to recommend to you that might improve our position. All we can do is pressure our State Representatives and CDFW Delegation members to demand a more fair allocation for CA. Only they sit at the PFMC table and we have no other options, from a Regulatory standpoint, other than working through them.

Act now! I would encourage all anglers to send letters to the pfmc.comments@noaa.gov, before August 15, to state our displeasure with the process and make a demand for equitable treatment based upon science and the Magnuson-Stevens Management Act. Copy your letter to the CDFW and make a demand for improved representation for recreational anglers. If they receive a barrage of letters, it does make a difference. This is your fishery, you need to act now if you want to protect what is left of it, or you could certainly lose more time and opportunity by silence.

Tom Marking is a past Board Member of the Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers with a membership of about 500 local anglers. In addition, he is also a member of GAP the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel, serving as the CA Sportfishing Representative. 

 

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