Charter boat operator Capt. Dave Ardinger had to cancel and rebook many of his clients after a decision from the International Pacific Halibut Commission limited when operators can fish and what they can catch.
The commission sets the season’s dates and catch limits for halibut every year. The season will go from March 14 to Nov. 15.
This year, charter operators will be prohibited from fishing every Tuesday and Wednesday, and fishing will be capped for each fisherman at two fish per day — one fish of any size and another fish measuring 26 inches or less.
“I’m so upset I can’t see straight,” Ardinger said about the new restrictions. “We are literally bus drivers for the sports fishermen. We have a couple hooks in the water.”
Commercial Kodiak halibut fishermen have also been hit hard with cuts on halibut catch limit. Because of falling halibut numbers, the commission has decreased the catch to 12.2 million pounds, a 9.6% reduction from 2019.
The commission also increased the amount of allowable bycatch, or the number of fish caught incidentally by fisheries targeting other species and that cannot legally be retained.
Ardinger refers to bycatch as “dead catch,” and considers it a waste.
“I’ve fished my whole life. I tried dragging out of high school,” Ardinger said. “Throwing over salmon, halibut dead, i just couldn’t do it.”
The increase in allowable bycatch angers Ardinger, who said he is worried about the future of his business. He owns two boats with six lines each.
“If it keeps going we won’t be in business and there won’t be any halibut left,” Ardinger said of continual increases of restrictions on charter operations. “My kids’ kids won’t be able to catch a fish.”
Another local charter operator, Jeff Sanford, said these restrictions are hindering charter boat operations, hurting his company’s bottom line.
“They are restricting our fishery in the name of protecting a resource, while the resource is being destroyed by another group,” he said. “It’s super frustrating that the trawlers go on laying waste to a resource, yet (the commission) cite us as a reason for reducing our catches to save the resource.”
According to the commission’s 2018 report, Gulf of Alaska trawl vessels had 1,520,000 pounds of bycatch, compared to other gear types like the hook and line fishery, which had 107,000 pounds of bycatch, and the groundfish pot fishery, which had 3,000 pounds of bycatch.
The restrictions come after the commission saw a decline in these population numbers from its annual survey.
“The survey indicated a 5% decrease coastwide. The stock has been in a period of small decline,” said Ian Stewart, a stock assessment author for the commission. In the Gulf of Alaska the survey measured a 17% decrease in halibut population numbers, more than three times the coastwide average.
According to fisheries experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lower population numbers were only part of the problem.
Scientists also discovered that the halibut are moving out of the Gulf of Alaska to other areas. With new data, scientists were also able to measure how much of commercial landings consisted of the female fish. They found that Kodiak fishermen were harvesting females at a high rate, an important number for the health of a stock.
According to Stewart, from 2006 to 2010 fewer fish were surviving to maturity, also referred to as recruitment. Because halibut fish take 11 to 12 years to mature, scientists expect the next four years to have low recruitment.
“We don’t understand the factors that influence recruitment very well at all,” he said about fish maturing into the fishery, but “we have seen a correlation of overall environmental conditions and average recruitment.”