AD Main Menu

Halibut anglers left on the hook for commercial overfishing in Alaska waters

Craig Medred

Claims that all will be hunky dory next summer for Alaska's halibut charter fisheries is not an assertion that came from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the sole angler representative on that federal council told a group of state legislators Monday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, not the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, must have put out a press release earlier this summer trying to shoot down fears halibut limits could be cut to one fish next summer, council member Ed Dersham told a roundtable discussion organized by state Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. And, Dersham added, the press release really didn't make any assurances of a two-fish limit.

His comments were 180 degrees opposite of the way a special statement from the council was described in early September. One respected Alaska fishing blog at the time headlined the council press release this way: "A debunker on the halibut catch sharing plan.'' 

"The North Pacific Council has posted this two-page summary of the pending halibut catch-sharing plan,'' the Deckboss blog’s story below the headline reported. "The summary appears to be an attempt to debunk some of the claims swirling around the controversial plan.... Assertions that the plan will mean a one-fish daily bag limit in 2014 for Southcentral Alaska charter anglers are unfounded."

Dersham's attempts to disassociate the council from those claims came as McGuire, Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Wasilla; and Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, met with Alaska charter boat operators to discuss options they might suggest to the council to prevent economic disaster for halibut charters next year.

Commercial fishermen take 75 to 95 percent of halibut

The commercial-fishing dominated council wants to shift halibut catch quotas to benefit the commercial fishermen the council believes have been unfairly forced to carry the burden of conservation as halibut stocks have declined in recent years for reasons scientists cannot explain. The plan still needs approval from federal officials in Washington, D.C.

Depending on the Alaska fishing area in question, commercial fishermen now catch anywhere from 75 to 95 percent of all Alaska halibut, but the council has decided the tens of thousands of charter anglers catching the other 5 to 25 percent at a rate of two-fish-per-day -- mainly in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska -- should share the burden of conservation with the roughly 1,000 commercial fishermen licensed to catch halibut by the ton. 

Planned shifts in halibut catch from the charter industry to the commercial fleet have sparked fears of a one-fish bag limit for 2014. Charter businesses -- many of them small mom-and-pop operations who haul anglers to the fish -- say a one-halibut bag limit would represent a dagger to their business.

Nobody is going to pay $200 or more for one flatfish, they say, especially when the average size of the fish has been steadily falling, and is now well under 15 pounds.

The charters are floating other ideas for reducing the catch while maintaining a two-fish bag limit. Those could include:

• Seasonal limits for anglers, similar to rules in effect for some king salmon fishermen;

• One-day-per-week closures for charter operators;

• One-trip-per day limits on charters;

• Size restrictions on catch to allow charter anglers to continue to catch two fish per day. Size restrictions are already in place in Southeast Alaska.

A so-called "reverse slot limit'' used there isn't great, Southeast charter anglers told the group, but it's better than a previous, one-fish limit that sank a bunch of Southeast businesses.

As charter operators talked about the economic Armageddon they could be face because of decisions dictated by commercial fishermen, the council came under pointed criticism.

"There are powerful forces at work here,'' warned Andy Mezirow of Crackerjack Sportfishing in Seward, "much more powerful than the charter industry.'' 

'Corrupt and ugly'

Johnson wanted to know why federal officials have overlooked the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act that calls for an economic study before drastic changes are made in a fishery. Mezirow, who has been working with the with council to come up with some management scheme that won't decimate the tourism industry, answered that federal officials say it would be difficult to do such a study.

"It certainly can be done,'' said Mark Higgins, an adviser to the state House Majority. "I think it's an excuse.''

"This is an ugly, ugly economic fight,'' Stoltze said. "In other industries, we'd call this corrupt and ugly.'' 

The comments finally forced Dersham -- who was appointed to represent anglers on the Council -- to defend the council's so-called "family," of which he is a long-term member. His defense came in the form of the claim that it wasn't the council, but the National Marine Fisheries Service, that has tried to downplay the severity of the situation.

This despite the fact the catch-sharing plan summary issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says very clearly at the top "prepared by NPFMS staff.'' And while the summary concedes that further restrictions on charters catch could be coming in future years, it flatly states the "assertions that this management program establishes or will result in a one-fish limit in Southcentral in 2014 are unfounded.''

Nobody knows whether that will be the case or not, said Mezirow and others, given that catch quotas have yet to be set.  

Some in the Alaska Legislature's conference room were left scratching their heads as to why Dersham -- an appointee of state's rights advocate Gov. Sean Parnell -- would be trying to spin information to make the federally created council look better. 

Some said later outside the meeting that that reason is obvious: The commercial fishing industry has the council in its pocket. They noted that a majority of the council members were appointed by Parnell, and yet he was somehow unable to get the council to push for an economic study of what is in the best economic interest of Alaska before deciding to reallocate halibut catches.

Biggest bang for the buck

During the meeting, Stoltze warned charter operators not to get their hopes up just because they finally had some politicians listening to them. 

"We're really only a facilitating group,'' he said. But he added that lawmakers would try to get the message to Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell that charter businesses maximize the value of halibut for the state of Alaska. 

Past studies have indicated the big-bang for the buck, at least as far as the state is concerned, comes in selling halibut fishing opportunities to tourists or Alaska residents instead of a relatively small number of commercial fishermen catching halibut and hauling the whole fish back to the port of Seattle or into an Alaska port to be loaded onto a truck and sent to Canada for processing.

Campbell is, like Dersham, a member of the Council. She was not at the roundtable. She had more important meetings to attend, according to staff. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com