Judge rules to keep halibut charter limits

Mike Campbell

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday denied a request by the Charter Operators of Alaska for a preliminary injunction blocking the National Marine Fisheries Service from implementing a new halibut limited-entry program that will knock hundreds of small charters out of business.

To curtail a charter fleet it feared was growing too quickly, the National Marine Fisheries Service beginning this year is demanding boat owners demonstrate they participated in the fishery in 2004 or 2005 as well as 2008 to qualify for a permit.

The rule would knock 327 charters out of business, according to the plaintiffs, a recently formed nonprofit fighting the plan. Charter Operators of Alaska sought to ensure that charters operating last year could continue.

"It's unfortunate because it's going to affect a lot of people," Kent Haina, a Charter Operators of Alaska board member who runs Poi Boy Fishing and Wilderness Lodge in Homer, said of the decision. "Apparently, our arguments just weren't enough to tip the balance that the government acted in unreasonable manner."

Haina said the decision was issued late Tuesday afternoon, and he hadn't read it yet.

"The (public) groundswell just wasn't there that I expected," he said. "When charter prices go up to $300 a person this summer, maybe then we'll hear it."

The National Marine Fisheries Service said the new regulations -- years in the making -- were needed to stem the growth of charter operators in Alaska.

But even before the rules took effect in February, the number of halibut caught by charters in an area called 3A that includes Homer, Seward, Whittier and Valdez was dropping -- down 29 percent over the last three years. Some charter operators attributed the lower catches to a reduced numbers of clients brought on by the national recession.

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

Charter Operators of Alaska, which argued that the limited-entry plan would do nothing to reduce the halibut harvest, plans to meet today to decide what to do next.

Commercial fishermen take about three-quarters of the Alaska halibut landed each year.

"There's been a lot of growth, a lot of turnover," Rachel Baker, a Juneau-based fisheries specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said of the charter fleet in November. "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."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.