New rule curtails the number of Alaska halibut charters

Mike Campbell

Federal rules taking effect in February are expected to keep a third of the halibut sport charters working out of Homer, Seward and Valdez stuck in harbor this year.

To curtail a charter fleet it feared was growing too quickly, the National Marine Fisheries Service is demanding boat owners demonstrate they participated in the fishery in 2004 or 2005 as well as 2008 to qualify for a permit. All permits carry limits on the number of anglers aboard who can keep halibut, called angler endorsements.

Unless the vessel has a federal permit, charter boat anglers cannot keep halibut.

"For the state of Alaska to have 40 percent of the business in any sector eliminated is not good," said Greg Sutter, president of the Alaska Charter Association and the owner of Captain Greg's Charters in Homer. "The government has artificially eliminated competition, but competition is great for a diverse fleet. This is going to eliminate a lot of the choices for the consumer."

The action dates to 1993, when the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council first became concerned about a growing halibut charter sector.

"Commercial stakeholders asked for a cap on the charter harvest, the fastest-growing segment of the sport fishery," Homer biologist Scott Meyer, the statewide halibut and bottomfish coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote on his agency's website. "The problem was that charter harvest was deducted 'off the top' of each year's allowable fishery removals before setting the commercial catch limit ... Growth in charter harvest had to be offset by a lowering of the commercial catch limit."

Still, even back then, commercial fishermen took more than 80 percent of the total harvest.

The sport charter restrictions that go into effect next year were first recommended in early 2007, said Rachel Baker, a Juneau-based fisheries specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is primarily responsible for enforcing regulations.

Four years later, when the rules go into effect next February, some of the trends that spawned the action will have softened or reversed.

Between 2007 and 2009, for instance, the Southcentral sport halibut harvest in what's known as Area 3A between Kodiak and Juneau declined 24 percent to 4.7 million pounds, fueled by the national recession that kept some anglers home. Anglers fishing with charters make up about 57 percent of that harvest.

At the same time, commercial fishermen in the same area captured the lion's share of the halibut -- about 22 million pounds, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

"Although it doesn't seem like there's continued growth (among the charters)," Baker said, "we're still going ahead with the program. There's been a lot of growth, a lot of turnover. By itself, a limited-access program doesn't guarantee a harvest will go down. In fact, it's hard to say what will happen to the harvest."

How many charters will be sidelined?

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service's regulatory impact review, "154 of the guided businesses (in Southcentral) that showed evidence of bottomfish fishing in 2008 would not qualify to receive a permit; 111 of these had five or more trips in 2008, and 81 of these had 15 or more trips in 2008. For comparison, there were 296 qualifying businesses."

In such ports as Homer, Seward and Valdez, halibut charters are big business. The Fish House in Seward said halibut charters this summer averaged $240 per angler, plus tax.

"Halibut allocation is clearly a complicated matter," noted Meyer. "What effect will limited entry ... have on the fisheries? No one can be sure ... (But) as the smaller charter fleet approaches full capacity, charter prices may rise and anglers may have fewer choices."

Homer charter owner Weldon Chivers fears he may be among the charters forced out by the new rules.

Chivers, 67, said he had owned Tacklebuster Charters for more than a dozen years when he purchased Halibut King four years ago to help secure his family's financial future. Now it appears that because he didn't own that business in 2004 or 2005, he may not be granted a permit.

"When they first came up with it, the way everybody interpreted (the forthcoming rule) was that you ought to be able to continue with the business if you bought it," said Chivers, a Kenai resident. "It looks to me now like they're turning people down just because they can.

"They're hoping people just throw in the towel. Just disappear. They'll force the rest of us to take legal action."

That's precisely what Chivers plans to do. "I have too much money invested in Halibut King to make a living with just Tacklebuster."

Halibut regulators

International Pacific Halibut Commission: Created by a treaty between the United States and Canada in 1923, it conducts and manages to provide an optimal yield of flatfish.

North Pacific Fishery Management Council: Created by the Magnuson Act of 1976, the North Pacific is one of eight regional councils that manage all fisheries in federal waters. Federal waters are defined as those between three and 200 nautical miles offshore. It is responsible for allocating halibut among various users such as commercial fishermen, sport fishermen and sport charters. Made up of government officials and members of those groups, its recommendations must ultimately be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. There are 11 voting members, six from Alaska, three from Washington, one from Oregon, and a federal representative, the Alaska Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Members with Alaska connections include chairman Eric Olson of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association; Sam Cotten of Eagle River; Ed Dersham of Anchor Point; Duncan Fields of Kodiak; Dan Hull of Anchorage; the state Fish and Game commissioner (current commissioner Denby Lloyd has resigned); Jim Balsiger of NOAA in Juneau, with Sue Salveson as the alternate; and Adm. C.C. Colvin of the 17th Coast Guard District in Juneau, with Capt. Mike Cerne his alternate.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game: Even though Alaska lacks management authority, it monitors the sport harvest. Alaska State Troopers assist with enforcement.