Atlantic halibut are delicious to eat. Prepared properly, the white meat is tender, flakey, and somewhat sweet - a favorite among many. Recently, questions about the halibut stock have been raised: Is it healthy? Is it fished sustainably? These questions are difficult to answer, as there is uncertainty in both the science and management of halibut. Recognizing this, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (MEDMR) and the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) have begun working together to tackle a myriad of issues surrounding halibut.
Widely overfished in the 19th century, the current overfishing status of this species has been questioned in recent years. Scientists and fishermen have theorized that halibut are undercounted in stock assessments because they are fast and strong enough to avoid survey trawls. An assessment of the halibut stock will be updated this year, and federal scientists will explore methods for evaluating a data limited fishery.
State versus federal management
There has been some controversy lately over the differences between the state and federal management of halibut, particularly around enforcement. Federal managers are concerned that the halibut catch in Maine waters needs more oversight. With 40% of halibut landings coming from state waters, there is concern that with less timely reporting, state catch could cause quotas to be exceeded, thereby triggering accountability measures (e.g. gear restrictions or closed areas) for the federal fishery. With urging from the NEFMC, this is an issue MEDMR will be exploring.
Discard percentages in the state and federal fisheries raise some interesting questions, as the federal halibut fishery has significantly higher discard rates than the state (63% versus 4% in 2015). There could be a number of explanations for this: gear selectivity discrepancies, a higher number of undersized fish caught in federal waters, or that federally permitted vessels, unlike Maine licensed vessels, are only allowed to keep one halibut per trip. Some fishermen with federal permits argue that it would be healthier for the fishery if they were allowed to land more halibut in a single trip, given that when they encounter halibut now, they run the risk of having to discard. Either way, it is important to understand the nature of these discards for both the science and management of the stock.
Commercial vessels account for a large portion of the total halibut catch. However, in Maine waters, many vessels do not fill their 25-tag limit each year. Since 2009 only 7-10% of state-issued tags were filled each year in Maine. In 2015, landings in the state fishery were 39.6 metric tons (mt) (with another 1.5 mt discarded). If more fishermen chose to target halibut and filled more of their tags, the landings would dramatically increase. Assuming the average kept halibut weighs 12.5 kilograms and 50% of the tags issued in 2016 were filled, the fishery could have landed 134 mt. This illustrates the importance of accurately assessing and managing the existing halibut biomass in the Gulf of Maine, as landing numbers could change dramatically if halibut become a more targeted species.
Another ongoing consideration for the U.S. halibut fishery is the status of the Canadian halibut fishery. The current Canadian assessment estimates that halibut biomass is at its highest level in the 18 years that it has been surveyed. The total allowable catch is much higher in Canada than for state or federal fisheries here in the U.S. (3,149 mt vs. 119 mt), which means much of the halibut reaching markets here in Maine is likely from Canada. It is important to understand how this affects the U.S. markets and how the U.S. halibut stock interacts with the Canadian stock.
Although faced with many difficult questions, MEDMR and the NEFMC share the common goal of ensuring a healthy Atlantic halibut fishery now and in the future.