Plenty of halibut for everyone, for generations to come. Who wouldn't support that? When all the smoke clears, that is the goal of Alaska's new halibut management proposal.
Introduced in its final form in June, the proposed Catch Sharing Plan (CSP) establishes abundance based allocations for charter and commercial halibut sectors in Southeast (Area 2C) and Southcentral (Area 3A) Alaska. The CSP also creates a responsive management system to prevent allocation overages and allows a limited amount of quota to move between sectors in response to consumer or client demand.
Importantly, the CSP protects access opportunities for subsistence and sport fishermen by ensuring charter and commercial catches are tied directly to halibut abundance.
Careful management of this resource is critical now. Halibut abundance has declined sharply over the past five years and catches are at historic lows in some areas. In Area 3A the total allowable harvest was reduced from 30 million pounds in 2008 to 20 million pounds in 2012 - a 30% drop, due to changes in abundance. To reduce pressure on these fish, Area 3A's commercial halibut allocation was slashed 46 percent over those years. In contrast, the charter allocation, or Guideline Harvest Level (GHL) was reduced only 15 percent.
These numbers illustrate flaws in the current halibut management plan. The charter allocation is not tied directly to halibut abundance, so the charter sector plays only a minor role in conserving stocks. Worse, other sectors bear the brunt of conservation and charter excess.
The halibut charter GHLs were established in 2003. The GHLs awarded 125 percent of historic catch to the charter fleet, which translated to 13 percent of the combined charter/commercial catch limit in Area 2C and 14 percent in Area 3A. The proposed CSP increases the charter percentage in both areas, especially in times of low abundance. Area 2C's allocation is 17.3 percent at low abundance and 15.1 percent at higher abundance. Area 3A's charter allocation is 18.9 percent at low abundance, 17.5 percent at medium abundance, and 14 percent at high abundance.
If the CSP had been in effect in 2012, the Area 3A charter quota would have been 2.3 million pounds. Compare this to the 2012 ADF&G estimated charter catch of 2.4 million pounds. The facts are clear: the CSP will provide charter clients ample fishing and harvesting opportunity and, unless stocks crash, will provide that opportunity with a two fish bag limit in Area 3A.
Both charter and commercial fishermen make their living from the sea. One sector brings the people to the fish; the other brings the fish to the people. The commercial halibut industry has worked with managers for close to 100 years to protect the health and productivity of Alaska's incredible halibut resource. The charter industry must do the same. Both sectors need to live within the limits imposed by halibut abundance and to build robust business plans that accommodate natural fluctuations.
Remember those goals - a healthy resource, sustainable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities.
Tom Gemmell is executive director of the Halibut Coalition.