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Listening from afar, NOAA gets feedback to its one-halibut-a-day plan

Craig Medred
In a masterful display of bureaucratic cunning, NOAA talked to Homer halibut fishermen by phone and provided few solid answers to questions about the proposed one-halibut-per day plan for anglers using sport charters -- a 50 percent cutback. Steven Betts / flickr

On the evening of Bash the Feds Day in Alaska -- after Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R, and Mark Begich, D, got done dumping on the overlords far away in the nation's capital -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got its meeting started, and there was nothing but civility and thank-yous.

God bless technology.

Two years ago, NOAA went to Homer at the end of the Kenai Peninsula some 220 road miles south of Anchorage to explain its plan to take halibut away from tens of thousands of charter boat clients and give the big flatfish to 1,431 commercial fishermen. Needless to say, the NOAA bureaucrats who showed up in the self-proclaimed Halibut Capital of the World got roasted.

Masterful bureaucratic cunning

This time, in a masterful display of bureaucratic cunning, they hid behind the security forces at the Juneau Federal Building and did the whole meeting by phone. What transpired sounded like the worst of local candidate debates on a public radio station in the hinterlands. 

Julie Speegle, NOAA's Alaska spokeswoman, played the role of moderator after warning those online that meeting was purely "informational." The comments of those who dialed in would not be considered by NOAA in its review of proposed regulations, she said, and the comments from the federal officials in attendance were "not official agency responses."

"Please say on topic and be respectful," she added.

And then the show was under way, with the former TV news producer turned public affairs officer playing the part of moderator and a gang of bureaucrats from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council -- NOAA entities both -- assuming the roles of political candidates.

NMFS Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill was online, but didn't say much other than to reference the earlier meeting in Homer.

'Fairly contentious'

"Some of you may recall Rachel Baker and I had an opportunity to go to Homer about two years ago," he said, for that "fairly contentious'' discussion of the so-called "catch sharing plan" to give fish to commercial fishermen. 

Merrill stressed that he and Baker had listened to what was said in Homer and what was written in 4,000 comments to NOAA. They revised the catch-share plan, and put together a new and better scheme for consideration by the Council, a commercial-fishery dominated entity that dictates how Alaska's offshore fisheries are run.

The new scheme is now being reviewed by NOAA in Washington, D.C., and halibut charter skippers aren't much happier about this plan than the old one. It still takes halibut away from the clients of charter operators and gives them to commercial longliners, whose catches have declined as North Pacific halibut stocks have tanked.

The longliners and NOAA seem to believe that anglers should never get more than 20 percent of the halibut catch in Alaska, though anglers get way more than that in other U.S. halibut fisheries. There’s also evidence indicating the fish caught inefficiently by charter-hiring tourists produce a significantly higher return to the Alaska economy than the fish very efficiently caught by commercial fishermen.

As commercial fishermen see this, however, spreading the pain of conservation restrictions through the sport-fishing sector is only fair.

Because of halibut stocks are shrinking for reasons still unknown, "everybody took a hit," said commercial longliner Pat McBride from Homer. "(But) the commercial fleet took about a 45 percent hit. We're just looking for some fairness. We'd just all like to see fair treatment between every sector.''

That was the only "question" the only commercial fisherman sitting in the meeting asked after having sat through an hour of what sounded like bad radio. Speegle asked questions earlier submitted by the Alaska Charter Association. Baker, a supervisory fishery management specialist for NMFS, answered most of them. Or didn't.

"I think it's a good question," Baker said.

"This is a good question, again," Baker said.

"That's a good question too," Baker said.

There was a lot of that. There were not so many good answers. 

Buying, selling sport-caught fish

When asked about a Council proposal to allow charter operators to lease back from commercial fishermen halibut quota taken away from the sport fishery, Baker couldn't seem to grasp the idea that this might present a problem.

Alaska state law specifically bans the sale of sport-caught fish.

"NMFS doesn't consider GAF (Guided Angler Fish) the sale of a sport-caught fish," Baker said, explaining that the fish would still be a commercial-caught fish, even if it was pulled in by a hook-and-line charter-boat angler who paid the skipper of the boat another $100 or $200 to keep a bonus fish once sport-fishing bag limits are reduced.

"Nothing changes," she said. "It would still be prohibited for the angler to sell that fish."

Jim Martin of the Alaska Charter Association tried to point out to her that when a charter boat fishermen pulls his second big halibut to the surface and says he wants to keep it, and the skipper says, "Well, you can only do it if you pay me more money," that's the sale of a sport-caught fish.

"I'd call the cops," Martin said. "That's against the law."

And Alaska has been aggressive in pursuing the ban on the sale of sport-caught fish. A Southeast Alaska lodge was hauled into court and in 2011 fined $10,000 for merely feeding sport-caught fish to its clients. The state argued that because the fish were sport caught and because the lodge offered clients meals as part of a package tour, the lodge had illegally sold sport-caught fish.

There was no comment from anyone with NMFS. State officials also have offered no comment as to how they are going to treat this sort of fishing if NOAA approves the guided-angler-fish plan, or GAF, as it is dubbed.

It is a plan few Outside anglers planning to visit Alaska know about.

Getting the word out

Many of those at the meeting wanted to know if the Alaska Region of NMFS had done anything to notify those anglers, nearly all of whom hire charters to fish the rough seas off Alaska. Homer charter skippers wondered how many in the Lower 48 knew that their fishing limit could be cut to one fish (it would remain two for anglers not using charters) unless they opted to spend extra money to buy a fish from a charter skipper who leased the fish from a commercial fisherman.

Baker said NMFS didn't have the funding to do "outreach.... We are undertaking the same process we do with other rules," which is good news for those who read the Federal Register every day.

Speegle jumped in to help.

She'd sent out several new releases about the plan, she said, submitted to interviews with reporters from outside Alaska, and "I have personally taken phone calls from your customers in the Lower 48.... We have certainly tried to get the word out.

"When I send out a news release, oftentimes you might not realize this, often it is surprising to see where it is picked up.... It's got quite a wide reach." She’s even seen her news releases cited in news from India.

"We also use social media to get the world out, and that has a wide reach as well," she said.

A link on the home page of the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Regional Office takes one to a Facebook page titled "NOAA in Alaska.''  It has 1,493 likes. The page did on July 24 direct visitors to one of Speegle's press releases about the halibut plan:

"NOAA announces 14-day extension of public comment period for proposed Halibut Catch Sharing Plan. Comments due Aug. 26."

More recently it featured "NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger (getting) into the spirit of Shark Week, posing here with Great White shark Sherman from Jim Toomey's "Sherman's Lagoon" comic strip.

The page mainly promotes NOAA's scientific research, not fisheries allocation issues -- an always hot topic -- in Alaska.

Still, word appears to be getting out, judging from the volume of comments on the catch-sharing plan, said Merrill, who popped back in to say "we're hearing from a wide variety" before going silent for the rest of the night.

Whether that wide variety will influence the process remains to be determined.

Assessing maximum benefit

As the Tuesday night teleconference was ending, David Bayes from Homer asked what NOAA was doing to ensure its management decisions were producing the greatest good for the nation. He pointed out that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which put the NMFS in the business of managing coastal fisheries, stipulates that fisheries are to be managed to give all Americans the maximum "benefit from the employment, food supply, and revenue which could be generated thereby."

"Thank you, David," Speegle said, and promptly moved on to the last couple questions from the media. 

NOAA has said repeatedly it is just too difficult to sort out the economics of a reallocation of fish from the charter fleet to the commercial longline fleet. They know, according to a NOAA report, that the 1,431 people who hold individual fishing quota (IFQ) for Alaska stand to net between $2.3 and $5.3 million a year.

They have no idea how much the hundreds of Alaska charter boat businesses, and the thousands of Alaska tourism-related businesses that depend on them stand to lose. The data is just too hard to gather, Baker said again Tuesday.

And, she added, it's not the responsibility of NMFS to try to find obtain it anyway. Legally, she said, there is no requirement for the agency to do extra analysis of anything. It's just required to use "the best available information."

If the best available information isn't very good, so be it.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskdispatch.com