KENAI -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently taking public input on a management plan it hopes will better sustain a healthy halibut population in the central Gulf of Alaska and Southeast fisheries.
The plan comes in the form of a "catch sharing plan," a draft rule recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to establish a clear stock allocation between the commercial and charter sectors fishing Alaska's central and southeast areas.
"The primary message is that halibut is a fully allocated fishery and the catch sharing plan really is trying to keep all sectors within their catch limits," said NOAA fisheries management specialist Rachel Baker.
Currently, the two interests are managed separately.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission determines the total amount of halibut that can be harvested without causing conservation problems in an area, Baker said.
Then, IPHC subtracts the projected non-commercial halibut harvest, guided charter, unguided sport and subsistence, from the total. After a few other policy considerations, the IPHC then gives what is left over to the commercial fishermen.
The catch sharing plan would primarily make three changes, Baker said.
The first action it would allow for is the allocation of halibut harvest numbers to be combined between both the charter and commercial fisheries.
The IPHC would determine the total harvest number, then subtract all non-commercial and non-charter uses, mostly unguided sport harvest and subsistence, leaving a combined catch for both charter and commercial.
The second action would be to determine preseason harvest restrictions for charter anglers in those areas that are intended to limit harvest to that annual charter allocation, she said.
The catch share plan would allow for more proactive fish management and conservation, Baker said.
"The primary difference and why I keep saying it is proactive is because the guideline harvest levels we currently have doesn't have any management measures associated with it to be implemented concurrently," she said. "Whereas the catch sharing plan, you establish the charter catch limit but there are also management measures associated with it that are recommended and implemented at the same time."
In addition to its more proactive fish management measures, the plan also allows for more flexibility through its halibut sharing idea. The plan would authorize transfers of commercial halibut Individual Fishing Quotas to charter halibut permit holders for harvest by anglers in the charter fishery if a charter operator deemed that anglers wanted to catch additional halibut.
Both sides would have to agree to the sharing of the commercial fishing quota, and if an agreement was reached and approved by NOAA, that transfer would then be referred to as Guided Angler Fish and last for one fishing season, Baker said.
The rule also includes a restriction on the amount of IFQ that can be switched into GAF and limits the number of GAF that could be assigned to a charter permit, Baker said.
Baker said the measure could be used in Southeast fisheries, where charter fishermen currently are limited to one halibut per day no longer than 37 inches.
The GAF would allow the charter fisherman to harvest up to the unguided sport fishing limit or two halibut of any size per day.
"So the angler could use GAF to take their one that is no more than 37 inches and use one GAF to harvest another halibut of any size, or they could use two GAF to harvest two halibut of any size," she said.
Baker said if current charter fisherman bag limits in Southcentral, two halibut of any size per day, remain in place next year, there would be little incentive to use the GAFs in places like Seward, Homer and Deep Creek.
But, if restrictions on bag limits change, the GAFs might be available to allow more flexibility for guided sport fishermen, she said.
"It all depends on the catch limits that the IPHC sets and those are very dependent on the stock assessment that they are doing," Baker said. "If the combined catch limit that the IPHC sets is a lower number, that could result in a lower charter allocation that could result in more stringent restrictions."
The public is allowed to comment on the plan through Sept. 6. Then, the plan will be up for a decision by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. If approved, the plan would be effective as of 2012.