maine halibut fishery under scrutiny

First published in Landings, June, 2017

No doubt about it, halibut are big fish. Henry Bigelow, traversing the Gulf of Maine in the early 1900s, noted that halibut landed by commercial fishermen had reached up to 600 pounds. Today the fish rarely grow greater than 100 pounds.

No matter the size, the halibut fishery in Maine has taken an upward trajectory in recent years, increasing from 33 million pounds landed in 2010 to more than 107 million pounds in 2016. The rise in landings created concern within the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), which voted in November 2016 to make reexamination of Atlantic halibut management a priority for 2017.

A dilemma arises from the fact that fishermen pursue halibut in Maine waters and in federal waters outside the three-mile limit. “It’s a unique situation. Maine has a directed state fishery and then there is the non-directed federal fishery,” explained Jamie Cournane, NEFMC’s Groundfish Plan Coordinator. “The issue is that the federal and the state of Maine’s plans are not aligned.”

The Maine halibut fishing season is brief, from May 1 to June 30. That season also applies to Maine recreational fishermen and charter boat operators. Any halibut caught must be at least 41 inches in length. Each fish must be tagged with a halibut tag purchased for $1 each from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Commercial fishermen and charter boat operators may land only 25 fish per season; recreational fishermen may only land five. However, there are no current restrictions on the number of fishermen who may apply for the tags nor are there limits on the pounds of halibut that may be landed. “In 2016, halibut tags were issued to 858 commercial license holders in Maine, which is up from 719 the year before,” said Trisha Cheney, DMR resource management coordinator.

Vessels with a federal groundfish permit are only allowed to land one halibut per trip, while fishermen who work in state waters under a state license may land a total of 25 halibut in Maine during the state’s halibut season. Restrictions, called accountability measures, are put in place by NMFS for an entire future fishing year if halibut catches exceed a specified quota within a fishing year. These measures affect federally-permitted groundfishing vessels, not stateonly halibut fishermen fishing only in Maine waters. However, the amount of halibut landed by Maine fishermen is counted when determining if the quota has been reached or exceeded.

“Within the federal management plan, there is a total catch limit and accountability measures. In Maine’s plan, there is no limit on the total number of licenses issued or the total catch within the state,” Cournane said.

Accountability measures impact commercial groundfish vessels fishing in federal waters, not those solely fishing in Maine waters. The measures include no possession of halibut, closing areas to fixed fishing gear, and requiring the use of flatfish excluder devices or separators in certain areas. The latter would effectively reduce fishing for any flounders, not just halibut, in those areas.

“In 2015, state landings exceeded the state sub-annual limit resulting in the overall acceptable biological catch for the fishery being exceeded by a small amount,” Cheney explained. “This nearly caused Accountability Measures to be triggered for the federal groundfish fishery, which would prohibit federally-permitted vessels from fishing in certain areas, including some important grounds for Maine fishermen.”

Landings of halibut in Maine are up but, Cournane said, “ Linking that increase to stock status is difficult.” The Northeast Fisheries Science Center spring and fall trawl surveys provide limited data on halibut. Recent Canadian assessments of halibut stocks do show the population increasing but scientists don’t know if the Gulf of Maine stock is linked to the Maritime stock. And the Science Center does not have an approved stock assessment for halibut, Cournane said, “The 2015 stock assessment model was rejected by the scientific peer review in 2015. The peer review determined halibut is still overfished but it’s unknown if overfishing is occurring.”

Yet landings in Maine are definitely up. “One factor is effort, but typically effort increases in an openaccess fishery when the catch begins to increase, as it has with the halibut fishery. The most recent Canadian halibut assessment estimated that biomass in the southern Grand Banks, the Scotian Shelf and eastern Georges Bank is currently at a record high while exploitation of the overall stock is at the lowest rate on record,” Cheney said.

Perhaps the Gulf of Maine population is increasing. Perhaps warmer water is causing the fish to move to deep areas with consistently cold temperatures, such as off Downeast Maine. DMR is working with the Nature Conservancy and the University of Massachusetts on a tag study to determine if the uptick in halibut is due to a resurgence in the Gulf of Maine population or is tied to the halibut stocks in Canada. “In addition, we are collaborating with the Canada Department of Fisheries and Ocean to collect genetic samples as part of an effort across the Northwest Atlantic. Otolith [ear bone] samples will also be collected from halibut captured aboard Maine commercial vessels to determine fish age,” Cheney said. “The Council recognizes that indications from commercial fishermen are that there are more fish out there,” Cournane said. “The Council also recognizes that recent scientific studies suggest that the assumption that all the discarded halibut caught and returned to the water die is likely incorrect.” In September, the scientific peer review committee for all groundfish stocks including halibut will meet to conduct stock assessments.