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Bernard Einar Skud
National Marine Fisheries Service
Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA


The history of seasonal and areal closures as conservation measures dates back to the 1800s. In Europe, perhaps the earliest attempt to evaluate the effects of an area closure was an experiment conducted under the auspices of the Scottish Fishery Board from 1886 to 1896 (Garstang, 1900). In North America, the US Congress passed the Alaskan Salmon Law in 1896, which introduced closed areas in spawning streams and prohibited fishing in the evenings and on weekends (Moser, 1899). Among marine species, the management of the fishery for Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) has probably had the most extensive and continued use of closures which, along with its other regulations, have attracted the attention of biologists and economists alike (Graham, 1935; Nesbit, 1943; Burkenroad, 1948; Gordon, 1954; Scott, 1955; Beverton and Holt, 1957; Crutchfield and Zellner, 1962; Bell, 1970; Skud, 1975; and many others). One of the reasons for this attention is ensconced in the most creditable feature of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) - that of collecting and maintaining detailed statistics on the fishery since the 1920s. It is this forte and the resultant records that enabled scientists to scrutinize the management of the halibut fishery and permits the 60-year examination of the effectiveness of closure regulations in this paper. I will review the history of the closures and the evaluations of their biological and economic impacts.


When IPHC was created in 1923 and given the responsibility to regulate the Canadian and United States fishery for Pacific halibut, the Commission's authority was limited to two regulations (Bell, 1969). These regulatory measures provided for a closed season and for controls on the incidental catch (by-catch) of halibut in fisheries for other species. The Convention of 1930 broadened the regulatory authority and allowed the Commission to establish catch limits by regulatory areas, prohibit fishing on nursery grounds, specify the gear used in the fishery, extend the closed season and introduce a licensing scheme. Revisions of the Convention in 1937 and 1950 provided IPHC with greater flexibility in the management of the fishery. The major changes in regulations concerning closures were designed to permit more than one fishing period each year, i.e. “establish one or more open or closed season” and “close to all taking of halibut such portion or portions of an area or areas … populated by small, immature halibut …”


The Convention of 1923 set the fishing season from 16 February to 15 November. In 1932, the 16 February opening data was maintained but the closing date was dependent on the attainment of a catch quota, except that if the quota was not reached the season would end on 31 October. This statutory closing date has been changed over the years and in the 1970s was as early as 8 September.

Although the initial provision for a closed season established the base for subsequent regulatory measures, it failed to reduce fishing effort and, by itself, was considered to be of limited conservation value (Babcock et al., 1931; Bell, 1969). The closed season during the winter had been introduced before the existence of IPHC and conservation, per se, was only an incidental consideration in its implementation (Thompson and Freeman, 1930; IFC, 1948). The Commission's decision to retain the closed season was based primarily on economic factors (Babcock et al., 1931).

“The Commission is, however, satisfied that the adoption of the closed season was a wise measure, as it has obvious beneficial economic effects as far as the whole fishery is concerned. It eliminates the most expensive fishing part of the year, and one which is also full of hardship. It stabilizes the price of frozen halibut, and this in turn has a favourable effect on the demand for such frozen fish. The catches at that time of year are claimed to be of poor quality, and frequently so great as to lower the selling price below what is profitable. On account of these conditions all branches of the industry and the Commission are unanimous in their support of maintaining the closed season”.

Biological justifications for the closed seasons were noted many years later. Dunlop (1959) stated that, while the benefits of the closed season might continue to be largely economic,“… it would also help to maintain spawning reserves. In the absence of knowledge regarding the size of stock required to obtain maximum recruitment, concentration of fishing upon the matures when they were highly segregated and vulnerable upon the spawning grounds was not justified. They were already being heavily exploited upon the summer feeding grounds”.

The opening date and the length of the season for the two major producing areas provide an overview of the changes in the fishing time and the season (Table 1). The opening date of the fishery changed more frequently than any other IPHC regulation and often was the subject of controversy among fishermen from different geographic areas, between fishermen and processors and between part-time and full-time fishermen (Skud, 1977). Industry preferences for early and late openings were based on economic considerations. For example, part-time fishermen generally favoured an early opening so that they could participate in the halibut fishery as long as possible before the start of the salmon fishery. Other reasons also were of concern, in particular the tides, because certain areas could not be fished on spring tides and fishermen wanted to avoid these periods as opening dates.

During the 1940s, the catch quotas were attained progressively earlier and the length of the fishing season decreased. The distribution of fishing effort changed and the Commission expressed concern that certain stocks were being “under-utilized” and that others were being “over-utilized” (IFC, 1951). Because the existing Convention did not permit a division of the fishing season into two or more periods, the Commission sought other means of redistributing fishing effort. One of the methods proposed was to rotate the opening date between early and mid-May from the late 1940s to the 1960s (Table 1).

During the 1950s, IPHC decided “… that management must be modified to deal with each component stock according to its individual need…” and, in 1951–1953, established separate sections which were opened to fishing after the regulatory area was closed (IPHC, 1961). This approach changed in 1954, after the ratification of the new Convention that provided for multiple open seasons. The regular fishing season (with a catch limit) was supplemented by a short season (without a catch limit) “to obtain fishing on grounds and segments of the stocks not utilized during the regular season” (IPHC, 1961). By 1961, in part because of the industry's voluntary “lay-up programme” (described later), the length of the regular season had increased and the need for the additional season was eliminated (IPHC, 1962).

In the 1970s and 1980s, fishing effort increased markedly. The number of licensed vessels (5 net tons or more) increased from 497 in 1975 to 1,204 in 1977 and, in 1981, was 1,462. In addition, there were between 2,000 and 4,000 vessels under 5 net tons which were not licensed by IPHC. Although most of these vessels participated in other fisheries, this increase in effort resulted in an early attainment of the catch quota and the seasonal closure of the fishery occurred earlier each year. To prevent excessive fishing mortality on the “early component” of the stock, IPHC in 1976 introduced a system of successive openings and closures to distribute the effort during different months of the fishing season.

Until the late 1950s, the season in the Bering Sea coincided with that in the Gulf of Alaska. By the early 1960s, the opening in the Bering Sea often was a month earlier than in the Gulf. The earlier opening was established to encourage fishermen to exploit the Bering Sea stocks. Since 1965, the fishing time has been limited to three weeks or less in the spring or fall or both. This curtailment was necessary because of the drastic decline in the abundance of the Bering Sea stock of halibut. The main purpose of allowing any fishery to continue after 1965 was to gather information for stock assessment.

Table 1. Opening and Closing Dates and Length of the Halibut Fishing Season, 1932–1976 in Areas 2 and 31

Opening dateClosing dateLength of Season2Opening dateClosing dateLength of Season2
19322-1610-222502-1610-30  259
19332-01  8-252062-0110-26  268
19343-01  8-191723-0110-27  241
19353-01  9-061593-0112-26  270
19363-16  8-101483-1611-03  233
19373-16  7-281353-1610-19  218
19384-01  7-291204-0110-29  212
19394-01  7-291204-0110-28  211
19404-01  7-131044-019-26179
19414-01  6-30  914-019-14167
19424-16  6-29  754-169-25163
19434-16  6-20  664-169-08146
19444-16  7-09  514-1611-30  195
19455-01  6-15  465-019-24147
19465-01  6-11  425-018-19111
19475-01  6-08  395-018-17109
19485-01  6-01  325-017-11  72
19495-01  6-03  345-017-12  73
19505-01  6-01  325-017-05  66
19515-01  5-28  385-016-25  56
19525-14  6-08  365-147-12  60
19535-17  6-09  345-177-07  52
19545-16  6-05  295-167-12  68
19555-12  6-05  315-128-04  93
19565-12  6-27  455-128-24105
19575-01  6-17  545-019-22144
19585-04  7-02  665-048-31119
19595-01  7-08  755-018-01  92
19605-01  7-31  985-017-25  85
19615-10  9-071205-108-23105
19625-09  9-081225-098-11  94
19635-0911-302055-098-09  92
19645-01  9-151375-018-19110
19655-01  9-151375-018-26117
19665-09  8-251085-098-15  98
19695-07  9-211375-079-22138
19704-25  9-211494-259-21149
19715-0711-011785-0711-01  178
19725-01  8-101015-019-14136
19735-10  8-13  955-1010-01  144
19745-17  9-151215-179-15121
19755-01  9-061285-019-06128
19765-08  9-081235-088-12  96
197735-10  9-10  735-107-30  47
197835-15  9-13  625-158-4  43
197935-258-5  475-257-12  32
198035-20 5-30  105-197-19  20
198136-7   9-19  566-7  6-20  13

1 Area 2 includes all waters of southeastern Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California (see footnote 3). Area 3A includes the waters of the Gulf of Alaska from southeastern Alaska to the Alaskan Peninsula.
2 In 1935, and 1956, the fleet did not begin fishing on the opening date because of externalities such as price disputes. These non-fishing periods are excluded from the length of the season. In Area 3 from 1954 to 1956, the number of fishing days includes special seasons of 9 to 10 days.
3 Split-season, i.e. series of open and closed periods. In 1980, Area 2 was divided into sub-areas; 2A was southeastern Alaska, 2B was British Columbia and 2C was all waters south of British Columbia. The data for 1980 and 1981 is only for Area 2A.

The spring and fall fishing periods usually occur before and after the regular season in the Gulf of Alaska, when vessels are most likely to fish in the Bering Sea. Further, halibut are more densely concentrated during these periods. Since 1963, IPHC's recommendations for regulations in the Bering Sea have been reviewed and approved by the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission (INPFC). Closures on Japanese and Soviet fisheries were also introduced in the Bering Sea and are discussed under the section on closed areas.


In addition to IPHC's regulations, the fishing industry periodically introduced controls that affected the length of the fishing season and the distribution of the catch (Skud, 1977a). During the 1930s, the organized fishermen (union members) introduced a programme that required each vessel to lay-up for 10 days between trips. The lay-up programme continued with periodic modifications until World War II, when military officials concerned for the safety of men and vessels urged that the fishery be conducted in as brief a period as possible.

During the early 1950s, competition among halibut fishermen was so keen that the catch limit was taken in less than two months. Fishermen had no rest periods between trips and the processors occasionally had difficulty handling the volume of the catch. In 1956, organized fishermen in Canada and the United States re-instituted the lay-up programme to extend the fishing season, establish rest periods for the fishermen, attain a more orderly delivery of the catch, and aid in the conservation of the resource. The programme was supported by 18 organizations (unions and vessel-owner associations) whose representatives met annually to establish the lay-up rules. Eventually, the rules applied to four types of vessels and governed their fishing activity. Vessels and crew members could not engage in other fisheries during their lay-up and running time to ports of landing could not be deducted from the lay-up time. Each participating vessel had a crew delegate who was responsible for reporting arrivals and departures from port. The success of the lay-up programme is evidenced by the gradual increase in the length of the season during the late 1950s and 1960s (Table 1); however, part of this increase is also due to the decline in the abundance of halibut during this period.

Support for the lay-up programme was strong among the full-time halibut fishermen but part-time and non-union fishermen did not always comply with the rules. IPHC was asked to incorporate the lay-up programme in its regulations to insure compliance. Although IPHC supported the concept of the lay-up programme from the conservation standpoint, legal advisors in both governments concluded that the Commission did not have the authority, under the existing Convention, to regulate departures of individual vessels (Skud, 1977b).

During the 1970s, many new and part-time fishermen, who either were unaware of the objectives of the lay-up plan or disagreed with the rules, did not comply with the lay-up system. As a result, the support of the full-time halibut fishermen waned and the lay-up programme was in jeopardy for several years. In 1977, the Fishermen's Lay-Up Review Committee announced that the programme was being discontinued because it lacked the needed support. With the diversity of vessels in the fleet, the possibility of devising a lay-up programme that would satisfy everyone was remote. Legal interpretation aside, IPHC decided it could not adopt the lay-up plan because neither country had the manpower or funds to adequately enforce the lay-up rules.

With the lapse of the voluntary lay-up programme, IPHC had the option of letting the fishing season run its natural course and end within 50 days or of splitting the season so that fishing would be extended over a longer period. A short, single-season would have concentrated the fishing effort and resulted in excessive mortality on certain components of the stock. There also was concern that the cold storage facilities would not be adequate to handle the landings when concentrated in a short period of time. The Commission decided that the fishing season should be divided into open and closed periods to extend the fishing time and spread the fishing mortality between early and late components of the stock. In adopting this split-season plan, the Commission attempted to provide for an overall fishing season similar in length to that of 1976. Four fishing periods were established in consort with industry preferences: (1) 10–29 May, (2) 16 June to 4 July, (3) 20 July to 7 August, and (4) 23 August to 10 September. As in the past, the season in each regulatory area would be closed when the catch limit was attained, regardless of the designated fishing periods. Although the dates and length of the periods have changed, this system is still employed in today's fishery (IPHC, 1982).


In 1932, a year-round closure of halibut fishing was established in two “nursery areas” to protect young halibut. One of these areas was in south-eastern Alaska and the other was in British Columbia. These closures were retained until 1960, when the areas were opened to fishing during the regular season. Studies during the late 1950s had shown an “accumulation of old and large fish” in these nursery areas which “do not currently qualify for closure as nursery grounds under the provisions of the Convention” (IPHC, 1960). In 1967, an area in the south-eastern Bering Sea was declared a nursery area and a year-round closure was instituted that still is in effect.

Although not a part of IPHC regulations, certain areas were closed to domestic (Canadian and US) and foreign (Japanese and Soviet) trawlers, to reduce the incidental catch of halibut. These closures were established even though IPHC has no authority to regulate domestic fishing for species other than halibut and has no control over foreign vessels. Bell (1970), Skud (1973), Hoag and Skud (1975), and Hoag (1976) described the effects of Japanese and Soviet trawl fisheries on the North American longline fishery. Although targeting on other species, e.g. pollock (Theragra chalcogrammus) and yellowfin sole (Limanda aspera), the foreign fleets annually caught millions of pounds of halibut. Data collected by observers aboard the foreign vessels showed that most of the halibut were from 3 to 7 years old, below the minimum size permitted in the longline fishery, and that this incidental catch substantially reduced the recruitment and potential yield in the Canadian and US fisheries.

Realizing the importance of these productive trawl fisheries and recognizing that foreign trawling would be likely to continue, even if national fishery zones were extended, IPHC studied ways to reduce the incidental catch of halibut while still maintaining the production of the trawl fisheries. The data from the observer surveys showed that the incidental catch of halibut differed by area, depth and season. These results conformed with the known areal and depth distribution of halibut, which generally are in depths over 200 m during the winter and in depths less than 100 m during the summer. In 1973 IPHC proposed regulations to close trawling in areas where halibut congregated in the winter and to allow unrestricted fishing in the summer, when halibut moved to the shoaler waters of the continental shelf. Japan agreed to some of the closures in 1974 and agreed to additional closures in 1975. The USSR agreed to similar closures in 1976. The estimated incidental catch of halibut was reduced as anticipated. Although the closures resulted in a reduction of trawling effort, by reducing the fishing from year-round to less than 9 months, the CPUE of the trawlers increased and the level of Japanese and Soviet catch of pollock in the Bering Sea increased during 1976 and 1977.


My intent in this discussion is not to evaluate specific goals of closure regulations, rather I shall consider the general problem of instituting conservation measures for biological reasons and the resultant (often conflicting) economic effects.

IPHC gained international recognition for revitalizing the halibut fishery between 1930 and 1960 and the restoration of the stock is still considered “strikingly successful”, even though some scientists (Burkenroad, 1948; Ketchen, 1956; Fukuda, 1962) questioned IPHC's role in the recovery of the stock, and Skud (1972, 1975) and Hamley and Skud (1978) showed that assessment of stock abundance had to be revised. The most severe criticism of IPHC came from economists (Nesbit, 1943; Gordon, 1954; Crutchfield and Zellner, 1962; and many others) who claimed that the regulations reduced the economic efficiency of the fishery. Bell and Pruter (1958) and Bell (1959, 1970, 1981) repudiated all of the biological and economic criticisms. The past and current economic arguments - pro and con - generally concentrate on the period before 1960 and were not specifically concerned with closure regulations. My attempt to evaluate the effects of closures in this paper is thwarted by the interrelated effects of other regulations and by determination of whether effectiveness is judged in biological or economic terms. However, I do think that the regulatory experience in the halibut fishery can be informative and useful, especially with the inclusion of events after 1960.

Under IPHC management, from 1923 to 1979, Canadian and United States halibut vessels fished simultaneously in waters off four States and one Province under a uniform set of regulations.1 This fact and the maintenance of a viable fishery during this period, in themselves are measures of successful management. Further, through the introduction of different types of regulation and the study of their effects, IPHC has also contributed in a substantial way to the fields of fishery science and biological management. That economic difficulties have and still exist in the halibut fishery does detract from IPHC's biological achievements but the experience of this fishery probably has contributed more than any other single fishery to the theory and practice of economic management. Part of the difficulty experienced by IPHC was that its management authority did not include economic considerations, even though the sponsoring national governments fostered more progressive goals (Skud, 1977b). As pointed out by Needler (1973) and Alversen and Paulik (1973), conservation bodies are often hindered by the restriction of their own conventions, and Johnson's (1973) summary is particularly applicably to IPHC:

“The Commissions have encountered economic and political problems which their limited authority prevents them from confronting (e.g. over-entry into the fishery). In some cases, the success of a Commission in restoring a fishery actually creates such problems by attracting new entrants. Thus, the Commissions may fulfill their legal biological goal yet become economic and political failures in the process. Several observers have pointed out that setting out rigid legal definitions of what commissions can or cannot do has been an impediment to their growth, by preventing their adjustment to conditions they have by their existence created.”

Thus, the evaluation of closures or any other regulations should include consideration of the governing agency's authority to manage the fishery.

Crutchfield and Zellner (1962) made the following generalization concerning closures:

“… Restrictions on fishing time may be ineffective … if they simply shift pressure to the open season. To the extent that they do restrict the catch, they are likely to decrease overall industry efficiency unless vessels, gear and shore facilities can be shifted, without loss, to other uses during the closure periods.”

In the halibut fishery the shore facilities always have served other fisheries (salmon, herring, etc.) and the effect of the seasonal closures on these facilities was far less than on the fishermen (vessels and gear). Before effort became excessive, the seasonal and area closures did contribute toward the attainment of specified biological goals without seriously affecting the economic efficiency of the halibut fishery. As effort increased and the fishing time decreased well below 100 days in the 1950s, biological goals were jeopardized, the economic efficiency of operation was impaired and other problems such as the safety of the fishermen increased markedly. These conditions were ameliorated in the 1960s and early 1970s when fishing time increased, on average, to 150 days.

In the late 1970s and particularly in the 1980s, effort again increased and the severity of the resultant problems, in some respects, have eclipsed those of the 1950s. Many factors, including the declining fortunes in other fisheries, contributed to this latest increase in effort in the halibut fishery. One factor that had a marked effect was the very attempt of regulatory agencies to cope with the problem since 1980, i.e. as agencies considered limited entry as a means to remedy the situation, fishermen in other fisheries entered the halibut fishery to establish priorities (meet criteria) that would be needed for licensing under the pending limited entry programme. Indeed, part of the increase in effort during the 1970s was the direct result of introducing limited entry programmes in the salmon fisheries of Alaska and British Columbia, i.e. fishermen anticipated similar action in the halibut fishery. In this regard, the lesson is simple: introduction of limited entry should consider limitations for all fisheries in a given jurisdiction to prevent the leap-frogging effect of solving the problem of excessive effort in one fishery only to create the same problem in another fishery.

From the experience in the halibut fishery with seasonal and area closures, it is possible to classify regulations in a hierarchy of importance, i.e. those regulatory measures that are most effective in controlling effort are more critical than measures concerned with gear, protection of young, etc. However, measures such as limited entry, alone, will not ensure successful management. In the halibut fishery - even with its dis-economies - the catch limit or quota (and its attendant closures) has been the regulatory measure with the greatest impact. Without the quota, the present-day effort probably would have led to the inevitable depletion predicted by economist's models of uncontrolled fisheries. However, the quota alone will not prevent economic inefficiencies. In other fisheries - for example, anadromous species - there is a different hierarchy, i.e. a seasonal closure, which assures the escapement of an adequate spawning stock can ensure the perpetuation of the stock but may also be fraught with economic difficulties unless fishing effort is controlled.


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