"That's an understatement," chief scientist Steven Hare said yesterday when asked if his office had been barraged with calls. "I don't know how you got through."
The halibut quota has been reduced seven years running, with the fishery now about half the size it was a decade ago. "We dropped it 20 percent last year, so I'd say this is pretty significant," Hare says of the recommendation announced at the commission's meeting in Seattle last week.
The reduced quota is troubling to commercial fishermen, charter fishing guides, coastal towns dependent on the halibut industry and consumers, who will likely be asked to pay a higher price for halibut. The Alaska Dispatch used the words "catastrophic" and "Armageddon" in its coverage of the meeting.
"There will be less halibut," Hare says. "Fishermen want more, subsistence fisherman want more. There's a lot of competition. But the fact is the indicators show (the stock) is down."
According to Hare, there are plenty of halibut in the sea. But they're young, small and not growing as quickly as they should. Twenty years ago, it wasn't unusual for a 15-year old female to weigh in at 100 pounds. Now, the average 15-year old female is about 30 pounds.
Scientists aren't certain what's causing the "size at age" issue, nor can they fully explain why more halibut are dying than projections would suggest. Illegal fishing, disease and food shortages have been advanced as possible explanations. But, no matter the reason, the commission is charged with protecting the spawning-age population and setting quotas accordingly.
Commission staffers are calling for a quota of 33 million pounds, divvied up by region. That's a slight uptick from the halibut catch in 1978, but far off the 76.5 million pounds of halibut legally removed in 2004.
Commissioners will determine the quota at a meeting next month. Last year, the commission adopted the staff recommendation without any adjustments.