Keep halibut catch sharing facts in mind

COMPASS: Other points of view

By BRENT WESTERNSeptember 19, 2011 

The recent debate over the halibut catch sharing plan (CSP) has been plagued with misinformation. Unfortunately, a recent Daily News editorial ("Halibut? Go for two," Sept. 18) repeats some of that misinformation.

The statement that the Southcentral (Area 3A) charter businesses were cut 30 percent by the limited entry program (LEP) misrepresents the issue. Charter operators called for limited entry because the industry was overcapitalized and charter fishing had depleted accessible areas of halibut.

In response, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council started working on the LEP in 2006 and cautioned the industry that new entrants after 2005 would likely not qualify for a permit. Nevertheless, the announcement was followed by a speculative increase in charter vessels and then a decline that coincides with the national economic recession.

NOAA indicates that 502 vessels will receive 3A charter LEPs (individual permits can be shared among vessels); in 2005 there were 567 charter vessels in 3A. That's an 11 percent decrease in a self-proclaimed overcapitalized industry.

The editorial claims no overages in 3A, but in fact the cumulative 3A charter overage since 2004 has been 400,000 pounds, with an ex-vessel value to commercial fishermen of $1.6 million and unquantified impacts to subsistence and sport fishermen. Since 2005, the exploitable biomass in 3A has gone down 25 percent, the commercial quota was cut 43 percent and the charter GHL has been level. Shouldn't all sectors share in conserving the resource?

The NOAA analysis contains qualitative economic analysis of the impacts of the CSP in 2C and 3A. This is the best information available, given limitations in funding and resources. The charter sector has had the opportunity to contribute more economic information since the October 2008 decision but has chosen to wait to claim there is a problem. The analysis states: "... changes in the halibut biomass will impact the optimal sustainable yield and the optimal allocation of halibut. Because of these ongoing changes to the resource, any allocation that is optimal when it is made (if the council felt an "optimal" allocation was appropriate) likely would be suboptimal in the future."

The provision permitting charter operators to lease commercial quota allows the public to determine the optimal allocation. Right now the demand for access via charter boats is dropping, while the demand for commercially caught halibut has never been stronger.

In 2011, Alaska's commercial halibut fishery will provide about 70 million meals, including 35 million from areas 2C/3A. Charter operations in these areas provide access to 230,000 clients. Exactly which group is "the few" and which group is "the many?"

The editorial claims the CSP is being fast-tracked; nothing could be further from the truth. The council has been working on a charter management plan since 1993 and on the CSP since 2006. Before the council finalized the CSP, a charter stakeholder group convened to advise the council, the council staff prepared a 200-page analysis and public comment was taken at multiple meetings. At the October 2008 final decision, 109 associations and individuals testified over two days and written comments filled two 4-inch-thick binders.

The council just published a 465-page draft analysis of adjusting halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska. The decision will consider socioeconomic tradeoffs between a relatively small amount of halibut and a much larger amount of Pacific cod, flatfish, rockfish and other species. How will that affect food supplies and security, the balance of payments, commercial longliners, charter operators, anglers, communities and transportation? Should the council delay that decision for more economic analysis or make a timely decision based on available information?

Fisheries management is complex and the CSP is no exception. In developing the CSP, the 11 council members considered the information available, including public testimony, and made a balanced decision.

The CSP establishes a framework that provides resource protection management stability for the halibut industry and an essential mechanism for transfer between sectors. Well-informed public comment and discourse contributed to that decision. Speculation and misinformation do nothing but fuel conflict. Please learn the facts before offering speculations.

Brent Western is a commercial fisherman whose family has fished for halibut, herring and salmon since the 1960s. He lives in Anchorage.

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