Halibut regulations linked to diversification of charter fishing portfolios

by Lauren Frisch

Southeast Alaska sport fishermen are adding new species to their fishing portfolios because of new halibut fishing rules. They are increasingly targeting rockfish and sablefish in addition to halibut and salmon.

In the Gulf of Alaska, halibut is targeted by many customers on charter fishing trips. Both halibut biomass and the average size of a fish have decreased in the past decade. In response, fisheries managers have imposed additional halibut regulations for sport and commercial fisheries. This puts pressure on charter operators to come up with new ways to maintain interest in and profits for their businesses.

A day's catch of Pacific halibut, salmon, rockfish and Pacific cod. Photo by Maggie Chan.

“So we wanted to know: if charter operators in the Gulf of Alaska can’t go out and target halibut the way they used to, are they targeting other species? What kinds of strategies are they using so they can maintain a successful business?” said University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Anne Beaudreau.

Beaudreau and SFOS graduate student Maggie Chan are interviewing sport and subsistence fishermen to learn about how fishing practices are affected by changing regulations and environmental conditions. They are working with University of Saskatchewan professor Philip Loring and Richard Yamada from the Alaska Charter Association.

Chan explains that for a lot of fish species, humans are a key predator. “Our goal as fishery scientists is to better understand the fish we study, but we can’t really do that without understanding their predators, one of which is humans.”

By talking with fishermen about past and current target species, the researchers are looking to gauge how targets have changed over time. “If new restrictions are placed on halibut, as a fishing charter captain you may decide to also start fishing for rockfish,” Chan said. “If thousands of sport fishermen and subsistence harvesters throughout the state have this same idea, it can have an ecological impact that we need to be aware of.”

“Socially, it is also important to be able to allow fishermen to keep the flexibility to target different species, which is important for their ability to adapt to both regulatory changes and environmental changes,” Beaudreau said.

Chan visited Sitka, Alaska to interview both sport charter operators and subsistence fishermen about species preferences. Photo by Maggie Chan.

Chan has traveled to several coastal Alaska communities to interview sport charter captains and subsistence fishermen since spring 2014. She worked with sport fishermen in Sitka and Homer, and subsistence fishermen in Sitka, Gustavus and Hoonah. Fishermen are asked about their fishing patterns, changes they’ve seen in the size and abundance of fish populations over time, and whether their fishing behavior has changed in response to a change in the environment, regulations or other factors.

When possible, interview questions about fish abundance and size are compared to logbook data. Charter halibut logbooks have been required by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since 2006 for people with a charter halibut permit, so the data record does not span back as far as the memories of many fishermen. Preliminary results show that in years where the logbook data are available, it matches what the fishermen are saying, which supports the credibility of the observations.

This research is supported by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Saltonstall-Kennedy grant and a UAF Global Change Student Research Grant with funding from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Additionally, Chan is part of the National Science Foundation–funded Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic (MESAS) program.

The researchers are starting to work through the data from the charter interviews, and will begin reviewing the interviews with subsistence fishermen when this is complete.

The sport fishermen interview sites are in different regulatory areas designated by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

“There have been pretty large regulation changes in the past 10 years in Southeast Alaska regarding the number of halibut each person can keep in a day and size limits,” Beaudreau said. “In Southcentral Alaska, most of the big regulation changes have happened in just the past couple of years, so communities have fished under fewer regulations for a longer time than in Southeast.”

The researchers anticipated these different regulatory timelines will be reflected by a greater diversity of target species and fishing areas in Southeast Alaska, and so far this is exactly what they have seen.

“In both areas, Chinook salmon and Pacific halibut have always been the top two species,” Beaudreau said. “And that hasn’t changed over time. What has changed is the preference for other species.”

On average, Southeast Alaska captains are now targeting between one and two additional species per captain compared to when they began charter fishing. In the 2000s, there was an increase in the number of fishermen who targeted rockfish and sablefish in addition to Chinook salmon, coho salmon, halibut and lingcod. Approximately 70% of interviewees said this diversification was sparked by increased regulations on halibut.

Lingcod are commonly targeted by sport charter operations. Photo by Maggie Chan.

In Southcentral Alaska, there was no significant increase in number of species targeted over time. Approximately 70% of interviewees indicated that diversification was driven more by customer interest rather than changes in regulations.

The researchers expect that in the future, due to the new halibut regulations in Southcentral Alaska, captains and fishermen will start to diversify more and follow in the footsteps of Southeast Alaska fishermen.

“This project gives us insight into what fishermen may be noticing about changes in the environment in addition to increasing our understanding of how their practices are changing,” said SFOS professor Anne Beaudreau. “We’re learning about the fish and about the fishermen.”

Chan suggests that one way for management to account for this diversification is to adopt multispecies regulations. “Single-species management has the potential to impact multiple species in unknown ways,” Chan said. “Having an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management could help us better protect all of the species that are simultaneously utilized by charter fishermen.”

The observations from fishermen in Sitka and Homer will improve the understanding of where and how multispecies regulations could be useful in maintaining sustainable fisheries.

It is also important to recognize that one blanket regulation cannot encompass what every community needs. “Small-scale fishing, including sport and subsistence fishing, is so tied in to what’s going on in the local community and what species are available,” said Chan. “What’s going on in Gustavus will not be the same as Sitka, even though they’re both in Southeast Alaska. They differ in terms of the fish and the people who live there, and that’s really going to impact the way people harvest.”

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Anne Beaudreau, abeaudreau@alaska.edu, 907-796-5454; Maggie Chan, nlchan@alaska.edu.

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