Recreational Pacific halibut anglers in Washington and Oregon could see a small portion of their fish allocations transferred to California in 2024 following an upcoming decision of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
That body is convening in Southern California this weekend to vote on its annual catch-sharing plan, the agreement that allocates a proportion of halibut between the three West Coast states. Proposed changes to that plan would reallocate up to 1%, or roughly 10,000 pounds, of Washington’s halibut share — plus twice that amount from Oregon — to California, a decision Washington anglers feel could be a significant hit to a fishery with an increasingly important role in the charter business.
California charter operators, who currently have access to 4% of the harvestable halibut on the West Coast, argue the shift is overdue for their emerging fishery, and would help the entire West Coast maintain higher allocations of halibut on the international level.
In 663 public comments submitted since late September, those two camps remained deeply divided over the proposal, with Washington and Oregon fisherman strongly opposed to coughing up fish to their southern neighbor.
Washington currently has the largest share of non-tribal recreational halibut — 35.6% — of the three states, followed by Oregon at 29.7% and California at 4%. The tribal share makes up the rest of the allocation.
California anglers on a subpanel of the fishery council first asked staff in November 2022 to explore changes to the 2024 catch sharing plan in order to “maximize their fisheries,” according to a PFMC briefing document. The state’s department of fish and wildlife wrote in a report that the amount of fish allocated to sportfisheres was “perhaps constraining the fishery more than anticipated, and the California recreational fishery may have a greater capacity than assumed in 2015.”
Catch records from the past several years indicate the northern states didn’t catch all of the fish they were allocated. On average, from 2017 to 2022, Washington took 86%, Oregon took 69% and California took 98% of their respective allocations.
That data is partially influenced by immediate and lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily closed fishing ports on tribal land in Neah Bay and La Push — access to some of the most productive halibut fishing areas on the West Coast, said Heather Hall, an ocean policy coordinator with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Hall said Washington’s sport halibut fishery, which took 91% of its quota this year, is still rebounding from the pandemic. In a recent report to the PFMC, Hall predicted that the proposal shifts under consideration would result in anywhere from one-third to one and one-quarter fewer days of fishing for halibut charter operators in the state. While that might seem insignificant, Hall wrote, the impact is “meaningful” given the lower number of days in Washington’s halibut season and potential future declines in halibut stock overall.
At a meeting with Westport fisherman in October, Hall estimated that losing a day of fishing due to an allocation shift could mean a $97,000 hit to the fishery from charter trips alone.
“When we’re talking about the value of a day to the ports, with the anglers, and all the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants, it means a lot,” said Phil Anderson, a Westport charter fisherman and at-large representative on the PFMC.
He said charter operations have placed a bigger emphasis on halibut in recent years due to declining salmon numbers.
Most of the pacific halibut in the waters off of the U.S. West Coast congregate around the state of Washington. Because of high catch rates, halibut managers have stretched the season by implementing bag limits and staggered days.
That’s contrary to California, where, because of lower fish populations and catch rates, anglers get more days on the water. But recreational halibut in California is an “expanding, popular fishery,” said Tim Klassen, a charter boat operator out of Eureka, California and member of the committee that proposed the allocation shift.
According to Klassen, a 2015 survey conducted by the International Pacific Halibut Commission located roughly 100,000 extra pounds of halibut in the area of California. He said the state asked for an additional allocation at that time, but the fish were later distributed among all three states.
Klassen said the California fishery remained strong during the pandemic and even added new ports in recent years, which is what led to the request for more fish.
After the request, halibut managers with the PFMC took a two-pronged approach by examining both the possibility for greater transfer of unused quota in-season, and the more controversial changes to fixed, preseason quotas.
The current sport halibut catch sharing plan doesn’t allow a high flexibility of fish allocations once the season begins, said Robin Ehlke, PFMC’s staff officer responsible for Pacific halibut management. That could change in 2024 if the council adopts a proposed measure requiring states to report catch numbers on Aug. 15 of each year to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which would then reapportion remaining fish appropriately. While variable in structure, recreational halibut seasons typically begin in March or April and last until mid-to-late summer.
The only problem lies in the timeliness of the federal agency’s process, Ehlke said, which can sometimes drag on for two weeks. Setting a fixed proportion for each state prior to the season ensures the process won’t get tripped up later.
While PFMC sets the ratio for halibut distribution between states, the number of pounds each state gets will depend on an allocation from a higher body, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which will make that decision at a meeting in January. That commission, which manages Pacific halibut in 10 regulatory areas from the Bering Sea to Northern California, conducts surveys to determine the biomass of fish in each area. Washington, Oregon and California make up the “2A” area.
In 2019 the 2A area got a boost and added stability to its allocation because of an agreement, based on catch records of the Makah tribe that fixed the number of fish at 1.65 million pounds, up from 1.3 million pounds in 2017. The agreement lasted until 2022, was renewed for another year in 2023, and the tribe has proposed the same amount for 2024.
Steve Joner, a fisheries manager for the Makah tribe, said the tribe is also working on alternative methods to the international commission’s stock assessment. He said there is “no indication there’s a declining population” in the 2A area, and the tribe is also working on ways to secure the West Coast’s 1.65 million-pound share of halibut long term.
But that’s not set in stone yet, Joner said, especially as Canada and Alaska, in neighboring regulatory areas, might not be satisfied with the amount of halibut being awarded to the U.S. West Coast, which took an average of 85% of its quota from 2017 to 2022.
“We have to kind of prove up each year,” he said, referencing the 2A area as a whole, not the tribal fishery, which wouldn’t be affected by the proposed reallocation at the PFMC level.
“It’s in all of our interests that we do as well, overall, as we can. This is about 2A — it’s not about the tribal fishery, the Westport fishery, it’s about 2A,” he added.
Anderson expressed concerns about the “real potential” of the 2A quota from the international commission dropping in future years.
“I have a bigger fear about the (U.S. West Coast) quota going down in the near term, and if that were coupled with a reallocation it would make the harm that would come to ports like Westport even greater,” Anderson said.
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or email@example.com.