Fisheries council robs Joe Sixpack in halibut vote

October 11, 2008 

With all the noise a certain Alaskan has been making nationally about the needs and concerns of Joe Sixpack, you'd think someone might be watching out for his interests here.

But Old Joe just got rolled by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a collection of moneyed special interests who think the fish resources of Alaska belong to the commercial fishing industry.

The council has decided, in all its wisdom, that the two halibut Joe is now allowed to catch from a charter boat in Southeast Alaska is one too many. The council wants to reduce the limit to one fish in that region, and it has set the stage to do the same thing in Cook Inlet a few years on down the road.

All the tens of thousands of Joes, plus a fair number of Janes, will be forced to split a maximum of about 15 percent of the allowable halibut harvest while the commercial fishing elite, of whom there are a comparative handful, will get 85 percent.

"This is one of the stinkiest things I've ever seen the council do," said Henry Mitchell, executive director of SEAGO, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.

Mitchell knows a thing or two about stinky. He used to be a member of the council, and he used to be on the commercial side of Alaska's fish wars in his position as director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association. Mitchell now finds it difficult to be on the other side. He was around when the council first started giving commercial fishermen IFQs -- individual fishing quotas.

He has watched these IFQs morph from a right to fish into a property right.

"It really means those who were first in line and got quota shares own (the fishery)," Mitchell said. "It really sets a bad precedent."

IFQ holders beg to differ. They have at least a dozen reasons for why IFQs are the best thing to happen to halibut since beer batter. The list starts with the reality that IFQs put an end to short commercial openings that fueled stampedes to the fishing grounds. Somebody almost always ended up dead in the wake of those.

There is no doubt commercial fishing in Alaska today is safer because of IFQs. There is also no doubt that by allowing commercial fishermen to provide fresh fish to the market over a longer period of time, IFQs raised the value of the halibut to commercial fishermen. That is good for them.

But what about Joe Sixpack?

If he is an angler, he loses out to IFQs. To keep IFQs as high as possible, commercial fishermen want to keep his limit as low as possible.

At the council meeting, commercial fishermen didn't just lobby for a one-fish limit in Southeast, said Kimberly Tebrugge of the Charter Halibut Task Force. Some of them wanted that one fish limited to a halibut of a certain size.

Tighten the rules up enough in this regard, and Joe Sixpack, having spent a couple hundred bucks on a charter, is likely to come home with nothing to show for it but an empty six pack. But even that is not the real problem with the nefarious game now afoot.

The real problem is that Joe and Jane Sixpack lose even if they don't fish, because what is good for the commercial fishing industry is bad for the charter boat business.

For the small towns of Southeast Alaska, it is no different than for the larger Southcentral communities of Homer and Seward.

"It's unbelievable the economic driver that (charter) thing is down in Southeast," Mitchell said. "I couldn't believe the size of that sporting goods store there" in little Craig, Alaska (pop. 1,424).

Kill the charter boat fishery, force under the mom-and-pop skippers, and the ripples of their passing wash over the sporting goods store, the cafe, the grocery, the mom-and-pop bed and breakfast establishments. And the ripples might spread even wider.

Tebrugge sees the one-fish limit in Southeast pushing larger numbers of visiting anglers north to Cook Inlet. That could increase the Cook Inlet catch and speed the progression toward a one-limit fish here. Then almost every Joe Sixpack angler in Anchorage will suffer.

This is the guy who can't afford a boat big enough for Cook Inlet or Resurrection Bay. This is the guy who has no choice but to charter. This is the guy the commies are coming after next.

Though the drastic cutback in sportfishing is now directed at Southeast charters, it's only because the tourists who predominate in that fishery are the easiest target. Everybody in Alaska likes tourism money, but hardly anyone likes tourists.

"The commercial guys are going after the charter boat interests now, but eventually they will get to the average angler," Mitchell said. "They went after (Southeast) because a lot of that is tourist. They left (Cook Inlet) alone. But that's only going to last a year or two."

"I can understand," Tebrugge added. "In their view, recreational anglers really are robbing them of their quota. If you look at it from that perspective, yeah, recreational fishing really needs to be stopped."

Somewhat amazingly, Tebrugge even said she might be swayed to this view if it was in the best interest of all Alaskans -- anglers and non-anglers alike.

"If you just did it by the numbers -- what provides the best bang for the buck, dollar for dollar, and the studies showed the best return to communities was for commercial fishing, I might quit my job and back down," she said.

Charter interests, in fact, asked the council to look at economic data. That went nowhere. How could anyone expect otherwise? The deck is stacked.

"Look at the makeup of the council,'' Tebrugge said. "There's one sportfish rep. At some point there, you just kind of go, 'This is broken.' "

Not a single other fisheries management council in the country operates like this. Everywhere else, the split between commercial and sportfish is 50-50 or more in favor of anglers.

"If you take this situation outside of Alaska,'' Tebrugge said, "something doesn't look right."

Former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel once wrote a best-selling book titled "Who Owns America? Clearly, when it comes to the halibut of the 49th state, it's easy to answer the question: "Who owns Alaska?"

The answer is: A handful of people who got IFQs years back, some of whom don't even fish now. They lease out their shares, sit on the beach and collect the checks.

I guess it's sort of like being a rich kid with a college trust fund, except Alaska business interests are paying the bills.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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