Halibut catch sharing plan set for 2014 implementation

Alaska Journal of CommerceDecember 16, 2013 

The National Marine Fisheries Service offered some management certainty for Alaskans interested in catching halibut when it announced that it would implement the new catch sharing plan in 2014.

Under the plan, or CSP, commercial and charter operators in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska will have a combined catch limit next summer, with each sector taking a certain percentage of that pool of fish. The exact percentage each sector takes are different in Area 2C and Area 3A, or Southeast and the central Gulf of Alaska, respectively, and also vary with abundance.

Under the CSP, the charter allocations range from 15.9 percent to 18.3 percent in Southeast and 14 percent to 19.9 percent in Southcentral, with the higher percentages kicking in at lower levels of abundance and the lower percentage at greater abundance.

The CSP also eliminated captain and crew charter harvest, and created a provision that allow commercial individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders to lease a portion of their quota to charter operators.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, announced Dec. 9 that the final rule for the CSP would be published in the federal register Dec. 12, and will be implemented in 2014.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved the plan in 2012, and asked that it be implemented in 2014. NMFS worked to finalize the regulations, and published the proposed rule this summer, extending the comment period once to allow additional time for the public to weigh in.

Enough people commented that there was some concern that it wouldn't be implemented in time after all as the summer wrapped up. In 2011, at the proposed final rule stage for an earlier iteration of the catch sharing plan, NMFS was unable to respond to all the comments in time for a 2012 implementation and told the council the CSP had issues that needed to be fixed before it could become a final rule.

In a 2014 "as-filed" version of the final rule released Dec. 9, NMFS responded to the 4,740 comments and did not change the council's plan.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, said her group was glad to see the plan implemented.

"We hail it as a real win for the resource, a fair balance between different user groups and a way to finally resolve a long-standing conflict between sectors," Behnken said.

Andy Mezirow, who owns a charter business in Seward and fishes commercial halibut quota, said the plan went from final council action to final NMFS rule remarkably fast.

"I've never seen anything move that quickly," Mezirow said.

Despite the plan's implementation, the 2014 catch limits remain uncertain, even as the council prepares to decide what management measures to use to hold charter operators within their allocation.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, sets the combined catch limits.

The North Pacific council developed the split between the two user groups, and will make recommendations on management measures to keep the charter sector within its allocation.

That's a tricky process. While the catch limit is unknown, the North Pacific council was scheduled to make its decision about management measures at the meeting that began Dec. 11.

Mezirow said that's a backward process. It would make more sense if management measures were chosen after a catch limit was set, he said.

"We're kind of taking the chicken before the egg," he said.

Under the estimate for 2014 catches released Dec. 4, both charter and commercial operators would have access to less fish than they did in 2013 in Southcentral but that number is not certain. The IPHC will make a final determination on the limit in January at its annual meeting.

Last year, the commission chose a higher limit than the preliminary, "blue-line" recommendation.

Regardless of the final limits, Mezirow said he didn't think any charter operators in Southcentral were going to go out of business -- and the much talked-of bag limit reduction to one fish was not going to happen, he said.

During the summer, part of the charter industry, largely concentrated in Southcentral, launched a campaign to tell the public that the new management structure would result in a decreased catch for guided anglers.

The Alaska Charter Association was part of that effort.

Alaska Charter Association President David Bayes said he was disappointed to see the CSP go into effect as written, and felt that the comments, particularly the large number opposing the plan, did not make a difference.

"At the end of the day, one cannot help but feel that the comment period is little more than placation for the masses," Bayes said.

Mezirow was not among those claiming that the plan would result in the lower limit, and said it was clear all along that it wouldn't happen.

Once the final rule was announced, however, Mezirow said he thought some changes could improve the program.

Those could come forward through the council process as trailing amendments, he said. Ideally, Mezirow said, he'd like to see changes to the quota leasing provision, a possible reduction in the number of permits, and a change to the schedule that has the council deciding on management measures before the catch limit is set.

Southeast Alaska Guides Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard said he'd also like to see a discussion of subarea management, so management measures could better reflect fishery dynamics in different parts of one regulatory area.

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