Federal fishery regulators meeting this week in Anchorage are trying again to end a 15-year battle between two competing fleets that hook halibut for a living.
The proposal now on the table would divide the available halibut between the commercial fishing fleet, which historically has caught the lion's share of the fish, and the charter boat fleet, which has been taking a growing share in recent years.
Commercial fishermen generally support the idea. But the charter boat captains are fighting it hard, saying the plan could drive up their expenses and leave their clients with fewer fish to take home.
One potential scenario would cut the daily bag limit for charter boat anglers from two fish per day to one.
"Don't let anybody tell you a charter operator can survive on one fish," said John Baker, a Ninilchik resident whose business, Afishunt Charters, runs four halibut boats.
Baker is among dozens of people testifying this week to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an 11-member federal panel of mostly government and industry representatives that helps regulate fishing off Alaska.
Council members are caught in the crossfire of an intractable issue -- how to keep two fleets happy chasing limited numbers of the big flatfish, which now are in a cyclical decline.
Neither side wants to give ground.
Commercial fishermen, who long have dominated Alaska's halibut catch, say they're deeply invested in boats and commercial fishing rights and can't afford to see their cash crop nibbled away.
But charter captains say they too need enough fish to pay their bills and keep their tourism-based businesses growing.
Over the years, the issue has vexed the council, which has tried but failed to establish a lasting peace between the two fleets.
And in harbors such as Homer and Sitka in the state's Southcentral and Southeast regions, where most of the charter boats operate, the conflict has spawned ugly animosity. One bumper sticker making the rounds at the council declares, "Die charter scum."
WHO SUFFERS MORE?
One commercial fisherman who testified to the council Wednesday was state Rep. Bill Thomas, a Haines resident who said he's been catching halibut for 35 years.
"My concern is we suffer together," Thomas said, expressing one of the commercial fleet's main points: That while commercial fishermen are strictly limited in the amount of fish they can catch each year, the charter fleet isn't.
So while government catch limits for halibut have been dropping with a declining halibut population, particularly in Southeast, the charter catch under the current rules can continue to grow unabated.
Charter captains counter that, well, the commercial fleet historically has caught most of the halibut and it shouldn't expect to keep hogging the fish.
SPLITTING THE CATCH
The proposal the council is weighing is a "catch sharing plan" to divide the available halibut between the two fleets. It wouldn't be a 50-50 split, as the commercial fleet still would retain most of the catch.
But plan supporters note the charter fleet's needs would be amply covered. Plus they're touting another feature that would allow charter captains to lease catch rights from commercial fishermen to get more halibut for their clients.
Many charter operators decry the leasing idea. They worry that if the government presses on with a related measure to cut the daily bag limit in Southeast to one halibut -- an action some charter fishermen have so far blocked with a court challenge -- they'll be forced to either lease halibut from commercial fishermen or lose clients.
Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, a member of the council, said he's confident the council is working on a solution to the halibut war, at least for the near term.
"Really, what people are looking for is a degree of stability right now," Lloyd said.
The council could vote as soon as today on the catch sharing plan.
Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call 257-4590.
By WESLEY LOY