Federal fisheries managers should weigh the economic impact before approving a Pacific halibut allocation plan that could reduce the number of fish caught by sport anglers on charter boats, an Alaska lawmaker said Thursday.
Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said the halibut allocation plan proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which could cut the bag limit for charter boat anglers from two to one halibut, could have a tremendous impact on Alaska coastal communities that depend on tourism connected to sport fishing. "When you allocate that resource, you have to do it based upon good information -- economic and biological -- and I don't think we have either to make the kind of decisions that this group is planning on making, that's going to affect the lives of Alaskans, and possibly the fish," Johnson said.
He spoke Thursday at a meeting of the state House Special Committee on Fisheries.
Representative of NMFS and the North Pacific Management Council announced at the meeting that the public comment period on the contentious proposal would be extended by 15 days, to Sept. 21.
Halibut decisions ultimately are governed by a treaty with Canada though a joint commission. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month attended a luncheon in Homer, which bills itself as the halibut fishing capital of the world, and heard pleas to extend the comment period.
Fishery officials say halibut numbers in Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf of Alaska, which includes the Kenai Peninsula and the rest of Southcentral, has seen a steep decline for several years. The proposed catch-sharing plan is designed to preventing overharvesting of halibut.
Charter operators say commercial fishermen already receive the lion's share of available halibut.
Johnson said federal officials should be able to provide an economic comparison between the value of halibut caught by commercial fishermen and fish caught by sport fishermen before making the allocation decision. He said it could take five years to reverse the proposal, and small charter operators, and the businesses that support them, could not survive that long.
"They don't have five years," he said. "Two seasons and they're gone. We're talking about potentially decimating an industry."
But Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, a commercial halibut fisherman from Haines, said he has seen his individual allocation fall without a compensating rise in price.
"I have constituents who can't afford to go fishing anymore," he said.
Commercial fishermen have been willing to beach their boats to protect the resource, he said.
"I'm not hearing that from the other side," he said.