Court upholds 1 halibut a day on Southeast charter boats

PER ANGLER: Owners say ruling will force many out of business.

November 23, 2009 

Halibut charter operators lost an attempt Monday to rid themselves of the one-fish-a-day rule, which they say is putting them out of business in Southeast Alaska.

The charter operators accused the U.S. secretary of commerce, acting through the National Marine Fisheries Service, of failing to explain how the change from two halibut to one was made, and if it was fair and legal. The new rule took effect in June. The one-fish rule does not apply elsewhere in Alaska waters.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the record shows that the allocation decision was adequately considered. The court maintained that the charter operators' real complaint was with the one-fish rule, not how it was reached.

"I am out of business," said charter business owner Rick Bierman, when told of Monday's decision. "I have a boat and a lodge that is basically for sale."

Bierman, owner of Whale's Eye Lodge on Shelter Island near Juneau, said he cannot get clients to pay $6,000 to come and fish in Alaska for one halibut a day. After 15 years, he's had enough, he said.

"It's over for me," Bierman said.

Charter operators contended that guideline harvest levels -- adopted for the charter fleet in 2003 -- were unfair. When NMFS moved to enforce those guidelines, charter operators sued.

Earl Comstock, lawyer for the Charter Halibut Task Force, said the state can expect thousands fewer anglers to visit Southeast Alaska.

"This is going to seriously hurt the tourism industry," he said.

The court pointed out that charter boats had exceeded their harvest level guidelines for years. In 2008, their harvest was more than double the recommended level, the court said.

The secretary did the right thing by ignoring the operators' more recent participation levels, looking instead at older data, the court said.

"The secretary understandably chose not to encourage such overharvesting," the court said.

Linda Behnken, director of Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and board chairwoman for the Halibut Commission, said the commercial halibut quota -- the amount of fish the commercial and charter fleets can take -- has been cut by 53 percent over the last three years to protect a diminishing resource in Southeast Alaska.

"This case has been all about protecting the resource from overharvesting and ensuring that all sectors share and conserve the resource," she said.

While the commercial fleet faced severe penalties if they exceeded their allowable harvest, charter boats were allowed to exceed their guidelines without any ramifications, she said.

Year after year, the levels exceeded by the charter fleet were deducted from what was allowed the commercial fleet, Behnken said.

"All of us have taken significant reductions in income because of reduced harvests," she said.

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