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Alaska's halibut civil war ramps up as charters fire new salvo

Craig Medred

The Valdez-based Prince William Sound Charter Boat Association has taken direct aim at Alaska commercial halibut fishermen in the latest round of what has become Alaska’s civil war over flatfish. The organization is petitioning the state Board of Fisheries to kick commercial operators out of state waters in the Sound and off the Copper River coast, arguing that long-line fisheries cause serious "near-shore depletions" of halibut.

Supporting the idea is the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's largest organization representing recreational fishing and hunting interests. Council executive director Rod Arno said Monday a ban on commercial halibut fishing within Alaska's three-mile territorial limit on marine waters would finally "make the state step up to the plate. I know we're not going to get anywhere in the (North Pacific Fisheries Management) Council. So what can the state do to help these guys out?"

Dave Pope, owner of Shark Tooth Charters in Valdez, said he's tired of commercial longline halibut fishermen using charter boats as spotters to find fish. Commercial fishermen track which charters do well on any given day, Pope said, and then steam to the area to set their skates of gear. A halibut skate is a 100-fathom (600-foot) line to which about 100 hooks are attached. Commercial fishermen anchor their skates to the bottom, leave them to "soak" for hours, and then return to haul in their catch.

When they set on a halibut hole a charter has located, Pope said, anglers fishing aboard the charter can abandon any hope of catching fish.

'It's frustrating'

A federal law that essentially gave commercial fishermen ownership of halibut only worsened the problem of competition between sport and commercial interests. Years ago, commercial fishermen competed against each other in derby-style fisheries lasting only a few days. In the name of safety, the federal government eliminated the derby fisheries and gave fishermen individual fishing quotas (IFQs). An IFQ entitles each commercial fishermen to a certain amount of fish each season.

With an all-but guaranteed annual catch and no need to compete with fellow commercial fishermen, many try to work as near to port as possible to save to on fuel and maximize their profit. In this situation, it’s good business to use charters as halibut locators.

"It's frustrating," Pope said. "The commercial guys are a pain in the ass."

Earlier this year, commercial fishermen convinced the North Pacific Council to approve a "catch-share plan" to reduce the catch of anglers who hire charter boats. The plan would have cut daily bag limits for anglers from two fish per day to one in Cook Inlet and around the rim of the Gulf of Alaska. Charter boat operators claimed that would put many of them out of business.

The Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency with final authority over North Pacific Council actions, eventually took a rare stand against the fish-regulating entity that refers to itself as "the family." NOAA refused to approve the catch-share plan as written and sent it back to the North Pacific Council for another look.

What happens next remains to be seen.

Earlier in the year, however, NOAA did approve a North Pacific Council plan to limit who qualified to run a charter business, an action that put about a third of them out of business overnight. Meanwhile, citing halibut stock declines in the Alaska Panhandle, NOAA approved a planned backed by the North Pacific Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission to cut the charter limit in that region to one fish less than 37 inches in length.

As a result, several Southeast charter operators say they are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy because so few clients were willing to pay more than $200 for one small fish. Others went out of business. Still others appealed to NOAA in the middle of the summer to have the limit relaxed, noting that the one-fish-under-37-inches bag had cut business so drastically that the 2011 catch was sure to fall far below the harvest level. The federal agency refused to budge.

Taking half of allocation

When catch figures came in at the end of the season, they showed charter anglers had taken less than half of their 790,000 pound allocation of halibut. The catch, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures, was 390,000 pounds. Two commercial fishing groups -- the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, for which Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell worked before joining state service, and the Halibut Coalition -- promptly crowed that "for the first time since the halibut charter guideline harvest level was implemented seven years ago, the Southeast charter fleet has stayed within their allocation."

Those two organizations claim that "chronic overharvest" by charter boats in Southeast Alaska has led to conservation problems. The commercial halibut allocation for Southeast this year was 2.3 million pounds, and as of last report about 2.2 million pounds were landed. That's about three times the charter allocation and more than five times what the charter fishery actually caught.

Charter boat operators are angry.

"If there's a conservation problem, and they (commercial fishermen) catch 90 percent of the fish, they're 90 percent of the problem," said Pope, noting that statewide the charter boat catch of halibut is about 10 percent of the total kill. The bulk of the harvest are flatfish landed in the long-line fisheries, but significant numbers of halibut, about 5 million pounds annually, are caught while trawling in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for pollock, cod and other species.

By law, those "incidental fish" -- commonly called bycatch -- must be dumped back in the sea. Many are dead. Increasing numbers of dead fish are also released by commercial longline fishermen. This loss, which the IPHC calls "wastage," is attributable to a shift in the biomass of Gulf of Alaska halibut. There are plenty of fish, but most of them are small. Commercial fishermen are required to release any halibut under 32 inches.

A significant number of those released fish die (about 16 percent according to the latest estimates). But biologists believe releasing the fish is worth it given that 84 percent survive. If the small halibut were caught and kept, they say, all the fish would probably become waste because processors don't want them.

A 32-inch halibut on average weighs only about 10-pounds when dressed. The filets from such a fish are so small they are considered difficult to market.

Sizes down, prices up

Scientists aren't sure why so many Alaska halibut are now so small, but they suspect the fish probably aren't finding as much feed as they did decades ago.

According to the commission which, by treaty, sets catch limits for the flatfish in both U.S. and Canadian waters:

For the past 15 years or so halibut growth rates have been depressed to levels that haven't been seen since the 1920s. ... Sometime around 1980, growth rates started to drop, and now Alaska halibut of a given age … are about the same size as they were in the 1920s. For example, in the northern Gulf of Alaska, an 11-year-old female halibut weighed about 20 pounds in the 1920s, nearly 50 pounds in the 1970s, and now again about 20 pounds.

Halibut commission scientists says there is no shortage of halibut, but their shrinking size means the biomass has shrunk. That has, in turn, forced cutbacks in the commercial fisheries, and commercial fishermen have responded by demanding cuts in recreational fisheries, even though the value of halibut in the market place continues to rise.

"They're making 25 percent more money catching 17 percent less fish," Pope said. Despite that, he said, the commercial fishermen have pushed hard to chop the catch by halibut charters while the state has largely turned its back on the whole issue.

Gov. Sean Parnell has aggressively fought federal involvement in almost all others areas of resource management in Alaska, but his administration has been notably silent on halibut.

"The state's done nothing to help," the Outdoor Council's Arno said.

Now, with a proposed commercial halibut fishing ban within three miles of shore before the Board of Fisheries, the state could change course. "I think we'll get behind it and make a big deal and push like hell," Arno said.

The fish board will meet in Valdez in early December. Many doubt whether the ban on commercial halibut fishing in state waters will get any serious consideration. Commercial fishermen are among the most powerful political players in Alaska.

"The commercial fishermen have the best politicians you can buy,'' Pope said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com