• Environmental, ecological, and fishery effects on growth and size-at-age of Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis)

      Sullivan, Jane Y.; Kruse, Gordon H.; Mueter, Franz J.; Martell, Steven J. D. (2016-08)
      Size-at-age of Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) has declined significantly since the 1980s. For instance, the average weight of a 20-year-old female declined from 55 kg in 1988 to 20 kg in 2014. The decline in size-at-age corresponds to a period of declining Pacific Halibut recruitment, spawning biomass, and reductions in catch limits for the directed commercial Pacific Halibut longline fishery. The causes of changes in Pacific Halibut size-at-age are poorly understood. Our project investigates several hypotheses related to declines in size-at-age, including the effects of environmental and ecological variability on growth, and the cumulative effects of harvest and size-selective fishing. Specific potential environmental covariates include the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is an index of basin-wide sea surface temperatures, and summer sea surface temperatures along the continental shelf of the Gulf of Alaska. Specific ecological variables include annual biomass estimates of Arrowtooth Flounder (Atheresthes stomias) and Pacific Halibut to investigate the potential role of inter- and intraspecific competition, respectively. We used a population modeling approach to simulate the effects of fishing on size-at-age. We found that the large increase in Arrowtooth Flounder biomass since the 1970s corresponds to declines in Pacific Halibut size-at-age. Our results also suggest that periods of high Pacific Halibut biomass relates to poor growth and low size-at-age. Finally, we found that harvest and size-selective fishing explains between 30 and 65% of observed declines since the 1980s in the Gulf of Alaska, and up to 100% of the declines in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia where harvest rates were high in the 1990s and 2000s. Our findings have implications for fisheries management, including balancing tradeoffs associated with size limits, and understanding how changes in environmental and ecological conditions can shift management reference points such as maximum sustainable yield.