The Wild Pacific halibut commercial fishery in British Columbia Canada is one of the most sustainable and well managed fisheries on the planet.
Each year before the season starts, Canada and the United States considers the latest scientific data as part of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). This analysis will help to determine the upcoming halibut seasons sustainable harvest levels in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska.
Halibut are distributed as one biomass from California to the Bering Sea, and thus an international treaty and partnership is needed to manage the fish stock collaboratively and hold each country and region accountable for sustainability and conservation.
Once the Canadian Total Available Catch (or TAC) is calculated for the year, it is divided amongst different stakeholder groups including Indigenous Peoples, recreational fishing lodge and charter vessel businesses, and recreational and commercial harvesters.
The commercial wild Pacific halibut fishery in Canada has a very high standard for monitoring, management, and conservation that exceeds almost all other local fishing and commercial fisheries around the world.
What sets the Canada's commercial wild Pacific halibut fishery apart comes down to the following:
1 – Scientific Models, Surveys, and Management: each year IPHC and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in collaboration with Pacific Halibut Management Association (PHMA), undertake scientific fishing surveys along the BC coast, tracking the various halibut and other species caught at different locations and depths. This data is used in stock assessments to determine halibut and rockfish biomasses sustainable harvest levels for upcoming years.
2 – Catch Shares: each halibut licence in British Columbia has an amount of halibut quota and associated rockfish by catch quota which fluctuates year to year depending on the science guided harvest rate. By allocating the poundage to each vessel before the start of the season, commercial fishermen can create a plan for the season to ensure they only harvest the halibut and rockfish allocations allotted to them.
3 – Highly Targeted Fishing Methods: wild Pacific halibut are commercially harvested mainly by longline gear where a ground line is set on the ocean floor in a select area. Baited hooks are attached to the groundline. The line is usually two to three kilometers in length and weighted on both ends by an anchor, a line goes to the surface where it is marked by a buoy and flag. Vessels use global positioning satellite systems (or GPS) to record coordinates of the endpoints of the longline.
4 – Select Harvest Areas: while halibut can be found in many areas of the BC coast, the commercial fishery only takes place in a few locations as fishermen choose areas not only where halibut are abundant but also where they can avoid or minimize the catch of certain species and safely conduct fishing operations. The areas available to commercial halibut fishing are also limited as fisheries closures and protected areas -such as Rockfish Conservation Areas and Marine Protected Areas - are in place to protect juvenile and adult fish and ocean features and habitats.
5 – Electronic Monitoring (EM) Systems: every halibut vessel is equipped with a government approved video-based electronic monitoring (EM) system with satellite tracking. Each vessel must hail-out and hail-in to a government-approved monitoring company prior to leaving the dock to go fishing and before landing after a trip. High definition video cameras are mounted on each fishing vessel, capturing footage of the entire trip and all fishing events. Fishers must track all catch via paper or electronic log books and the video imagery captured by the EM system is used to audit the logbooks. The electronic monitoring system also includes other sensors to track other parts of the trip, such as when fishing hydraulic systems are engaged by the vessel. The EM system tracks vessel position, fishing events, and harvests information which is used in the monitoring and management of the fishery. The EM system is state-of-the-art and the entire program (the EM systems and the monitoring company’s time and services) is funded by the commercial halibut fishermen..
6 – Dockside Monitoring: halibut vessels can only unload their catch at a designated landing port and an independent dockside validator from a government approved monitoring company oversees the vessel offload. The validator catalogues and weighs all the fish landed (halibut and non-halibut), and tags every single halibut in the tail with a unique serial number. The monitoring company verifies the dockside information against the vessel’s logbook and EM system data and then sends it to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Similar to the EM program, the dockside monitoring program is 100% funded by the commercial halibut fishermen.
7 – Part of the Integrated Groundfish Management System: every pound of fish caught in the wild Pacific halibut fishery is accounted for. All halibut and non-halibut species caught are recorded and accounted for, regardless of whether the fish is kept or released at sea. Released fish are assigned a mortality rate and an at-sea release mortality poundage is then subtracted from the commercial fishermen’s respective quota. This management system ensures that all fishing mortalities (retained and released at-sea) are kept within scientifically-determined Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits.
The sustainability, monitoring, and management practices that BC’s wild Pacific halibut commercial fishermen must comply with are extremely high. Very few commercial fisheries around the world have this level of science, monitoring, and management to ensure environmental and sustainable fishing harvests. This level of practice is expensive and is borne by the wild Pacific halibut commercial fishermen directly, but it is supported by the fishermen as they recognize the need for conservation and sustainable resource management.
These fishery management practices are the reason organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation refer to this fishery as a high bar example and the globally-recognized Marine Stewardship Council sustainable fishery certification program concludes that the catch accounting system is one of the most rigorous in the world.