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Plan would restrict one of two-fish limit to small 'chicken halibut' in Southcentral Alaska

Charter skippers say adopting a limit of one fish of any size and one fish 30 inches or less is the only way to maintain a two-fish limit in the state's largest and most popular sport fishery. Steven Betts / flickr

The days of anglers coming home from a fishing trip to Homer, Alaska -- "The Halibut Capital of the World" -- with two big, honking halibut appear to be over. 

In an effort to hang onto a two-fish limit in Cook Inlet next summer, the Alaska Charter Halibut Management Implementation Committee is asking the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to limit one fish to a so-called "chicken," a halibut under 30 inches. Such a fish weighs about 12 pounds -- or slightly more than a big Kenai River sockeye salmon.

The recommendation came Monday after the group met with Scott Meyer, the Homer-based sport halibut management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Given a shrinking halibut stock and the efforts of the council -- an organization dominated by commercial fishing interests -- to shift halibut catch from tens of thousands of anglers to about 1,000 commercial fishermen, Meyer informed the group the charter-catch quota is no longer large enough to support the traditional two-fish limit.

Given ongoing and unexplained declines in halibut stocks, the council says it wants charter operators to share the burden of conservation, even though the charters have never taken more than a minority of fish. And the council staff announced only four months ago that "assertions that this management program establishes or will result in a one-fish limit in Southcentral Alaska in 2014 are unfounded." 

Now charter operators say they are proposing a one-plus-a-fraction limit to head off a one-fish limit, given new International Pacific Halibut Commission directives on catch reductions and approval of the council's so-called "catching sharing plan."

Glenn Merrill of the National Marine Fisheries Service says the Secretary of Commerce has approved the plan to take fish away from the sport fishery and give them to the commercial fishery, though the rules have not yet been officially published. The National Marine Fisheries Service is the federal agency charged with supervising the appointed members of the council.

Southeast Alaska is already on a one-fish limit. The charter group recommended the council continue the slot limit of one fish under 44 inches or over 76 inches in place there. The recommendation for the northern Gulf of Alaska is new.

There are plenty of halibut smaller than 30 inches swimming in the Gulf of Alaska, according to the halibut commission. The problem halibut managers are facing is that small fish aren't growing up to become big adult spawners as in the past, and the size of adults has decreased.

Those two factors have led to a serious reduction in the spawning capacities of the big flatfish and forced progressive harvest cutbacks.  Further reductions are expected next year.

With that on the horizon and the new catch-sharing rule moving forward, charter skippers say adopting a limit of one fish of any size and one fish 30 inches or less is the only way to maintain a two-fish limit in the state's largest and most-popular halibut sport fishery. Anglers fish the northern rim of the Gulf of Alaska from such ports as Homer, Seward and Valdez, and Kodiak.

Because of the sometimes rough seas in the area, and the cost of boats and equipment, most of the halibut caught there are caught by anglers fishing with charters. The new limits would not affect anglers fishing from their own boats or rental boats.

The council argues that commercial fishermen in the past have borne the burden of conservation, and it is time for charter businesses to share it. Economic studies indicate that cutbacks in the charter sector do far more damage to the state economy than reductions in the commercial sector, but the fisheries service has refused to consider the economic consequences of reallocation. 

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell have remained silent on the issue.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com