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New scheme would limit Alaska charter halibut anglers to a single fish

Craig Medred
Steven Betts / flickr

The Alaska Charter Association has hooked into a catchy slogan and appears to be trying to light up round five of the state's flatfish war with an appeal to anglers everywhere to "Save Your 'But.''

The appeal comes as the U.S. Commerce Department is accepting public comments through Aug. 12 on a plan put together by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the National Marine Fishery Service to take halibut away from charter anglers and give them to commercial longliners.

State fisheries managers have said the plan is certain to reduce the limit for charter anglers from two fish per day to one next summer. One-fish-per-day limits devastated charter businesses in Southeast Alaska.

Sharp decline in commercial catch

Commercial interests have tried to push the new scheme as a conservation measure, but it is simply a reallocation of halibut from sport fisheries to the commercial fishery. Longliners honest about what is happening argue this is only fair given that North Pacific halibut stocks are in steady decline for reasons unknown.

As the halibut have faded, the commercial catch quota for the Gulf of Alaska -- the stronghold for the flatfish than can grow to 400 pounds or more -- has fallen from more than 30 million pounds per year in the 1980s to 20 million pounds after the start of the new millennium to only slightly more than 11 million pounds this year.

The sport catch, meanwhile, has remained generally stable near a guideline harvest level of in the range of 3 million pounds. Most of the catch -- about 2.7 million pounds at this time -- is caught by charter anglers who pay businesses in Homer, Seward, Ninilchik, Kodiak and elsewhere to haul them to the fish.

Because the guideline harvest level for the sport fishery floats around the 3-million-pound mark depending on the number of halibut available for harvest, while the quota for the commercial fisheries is directly tied to the sustainable yield -- growing massively when there is a bounty of halibut, shrinking hugely when there is not -- the sport-caught percentage of the harvest has increased in recent years as halibut numbers have declined.

The North Pacific council, dominated by powerful commercial fishing interests, wants to fix that by setting the sport catch as a 17.5 percent share of the total harvest quota set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a joint Canada-U.S. agency responsible for setting the catch limits for the fish that roam the bottom of the ocean along the North American coast from California to the Bering Strait.

A 17.5 percent limit on the sport-charter harvest would force the reduction in the limit to one fish. Many charter companies say that could put them out of business. Tourist dependent towns like Homer say the damage done to charters would have a ripple affect throughout the economy that wouldn't begin to be offset by the money generated for longliners.

Where the money goes 

A fisheries service analysis said taking about a half million pounds of fish away from charter anglers and giving them to commercial sector could pump $2 million to $5 million into the pockets of 1,431 commercial fishermen. Losses to the tourism industry are unknown, although economists familiar with how those businesses work peg the bleeding at far in excess of the $2 to $5 million.

Tourism is a very inefficient resource-harvesting business. It takes a lot of people to kill one fish, and in the process a lot of money gets spread around. A 333-page fisheries service analysis of the situation concluded the economics of the industry are too difficult for federal officials to sort out.

"Estimating the loss to the charter operator, let alone all other (tourism) sectors, is complex," the report said. "Those losses may more than offset the gains to the commercial sector, but because of the limited information available and the assumptions that would be required, those estimates are not generated."

Many in the charter business say they have a simple description for what the change will mean -- bankruptcy.

Charters are already struggling because of the shrinking average size of halibut in a population now dominated by juvenile fish. With the size of the daily catch shrinking toward salmon size, it's hard to get people to pay $250 to $300 to catch just a couple -- even if two 15-pound fish at $300 are still cheaper than what halibut now costs in retail outlets. Whole fish are now going for about $15 per pound in retail markets. 

Pay more for second fish 

The fisheries service has tried to soften by the blow by creating a scheme that would allow charter operators to buy fishing quota from commercial fishermen -- who were originally given it for free -- and then sell that quota back to anglers on charter boats. The thinking, which comes largely from commercial fishing interests, is that anglers could be tempted onto charters with a one-fish limit if they had an opportunity of making it two fish if they caught one big enough to make it worth paying the skipper extra.

"It reminds me of a New Jersey gangster movie:  first the fish mafia steals your allocation right from under our noses, then they offer to rent it back,'' said Rex Murphy, a sport-fishing advocate in Homer.

The charter association has started an advertising campaign and fired up a website -- www.saveyourbut.com -- to try to rally anglers to the barricades. Whether it will have any success remains to be seen. Alaska's political leaders, many of whom get significant contributions from commercial fishing interests, have been not so strangely quiet on the issue of halibut reallocation.

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on July 21, 2013 to reflect that the Guideline Harvest Level for the sport fishery is not fixed but floats in the general range of 3 million pounds.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com