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Halibut charter skippers organize against federal fishery quotas

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Glenn Merrill is unlikely to get a warm welcome in the usually friendly Alaska tourist town of Homer on Friday, unless sitting in the hot-seat qualifies.

Who, you ask, is Glenn Merrill? He is the assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has proposed a "halibut catch sharing plan" that Homer charter operators say is likely to bankrupt them. The plan would guarantee a comparative handful of commercial fishermen about 85 percent of the halibut catch in Southcentral Alaska for perpetuity. The charter skippers -- who form the backbone of the Homer tourism business -- would be forced to make do with the other 15 percent.

Merrill is due in Homer for a Friday evening meeting to explain to locals the need for the plan.

The Alaska Charter Association set the stage for his arrival earlier this week by charging that the proposal, as now written, will force a reduction in next year's halibut bag limit down to one fish. The charter association doesn't expect many anglers to be willing to spend more than $150 on a charter for the chance to catch one fish, down from the limit of two. And doing business is only going to get harder if there is a size limit on that one fish.

That is a possibility.

Charter operators in Southeast Alaska are already laboring under a limit of one fish less than 37 inches.

If the size limit comes into play for Cook Inlet, the 25-year-old Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby -- Alaska's best-known fishing tournament -- will be toast. That would be a blow for the Homer Chamber of Commerce, which each year nets more than 20 percent of its funding from the derby. Worse, though, would be the general impact on the community's economy, which lives or dies on the tourism business fishing attracts to the Spit that juts out from Homer into Kachemak Bay near the south end of the Kenai Peninsula, about 250 road miles from Anchorage.

Fish thief Arne Fuglvog supported halibut charter restrictions

All of this is thanks to Arne Fuglvog and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, according to charter boat skipper Rex Murphy of Anchorage. A former leader of the politically powerful Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Fuglvog was on the council when it began plotting ways to freeze the catch of halibut by charter boats and anglers. Small-time sport fishermen were seen as competitors for a public resource that had been awarded largely to commercial longliners through what were called "individual fishing quotas."

The longliners argued restrictions on the charter business were only fair. They noted the total halibut catch for the Pacific Ocean is capped by the International Pacific Halibut Commission for conservation purposes. If charter catches were allowed to grow, they said, the commercial catch would need to be reduced to keep the total catch within conservation limits. And that, the longliners said, would result in the charter industry taking away halibut that longliners were owed under the quota program.

Fuglvog, who was appointed to the council by former Gov. Frank Murkowski, was a longliner at the time the discussion started. He subsequently left the council in 2006 to go to work in Washington, D.C., as the fisheries aid to Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She was appointed to the seat by her father, who had resigned as Alaska's senator after being elected governor. Fuglvog's role as Lisa Murkowski's fisheries adviser put him into an even better position to influence Alaska fishery policy than he had on the North Pacific Management Council.

Fuglvog came close to becoming the United States fishing czar. In 2009, Lisa Murkowski recommended Fuglvog for the post as National Marine Fisheries Service director although he had no scientific training for that job. Still, many thought his political connections would land him the position.

And then everything started to tumble down around Fuglvog.

East Coast fishing and political interests put the heat on the NMFS to vet Fuglvog. Questions were raised about his past fishing practices in Alaska. One thing led to another, and eventually it was revealed that Fuglvog had spent years illegally long-lining black cod and other species of fish off the Alaska coast.

On Thursday, Fuglvog pleaded guilty in an Anchorage federal courthouse to violating federal law by overfishing. He negotiated an agreement with the government that will send him to jail for 10 months. For his crimes he will also pay a $150,000 in fine.

Welcome to Homer, Feds

With all of that going on, Merrill is due in Homer Friday to explain to charter boat skippers how the catch-share plan developed by Fuglvog and his cronies is in their best interest. NMFS has billed the plan as a conservation measure, though every knowledgeable scientist concedes it has nothing to do with conservation. It is a resources allocation plan that assigns most of a public resource to the commercial halibut business and leaves the tourism business with whatever is left over.

The charter association contends that is an economic mistake destined to undermine small businesses that do the most to provide jobs in the local Alaska economy; a mistreatment of Alaska Southcentral residents, many of whom have no means to fish halibut other than by charter; and a potential threat to public safety.

There are indications, one state fisheries biologists said, that the one-fish limit for the charter fleet in Southeast Alaska has pushed anglers toward boat rentals or even purchase of their own small skiffs.

The waters of the Inside Passage are largely sheltered, and skiff fishing is generally safe. Cook Inlet is a different story. Skiff fishermen have died pursuing Inlet halibut.

An economic incentive that pushes anglers away from charters run by Coast Guard-licensed skippers toward small boats run by inexperienced or marginally experienced operators increases the risk of someone dying, according to a number of Homer skippers.

Pressure's on as deadline approaches

With a Sept. 6 deadline for comments on the NMFS plan fast approaching, a number of interests are trying to crank up the pressure on both the NMFS and Lisa Murkowski to junk or modify the catch-share plan.

NMFS, some noted, earlier this year put close to half of Southcentral Alaska's active charter operators out of business with a limited entry plan for the charter industry. They have yet to calculate the economic impacts of that move, which probably boosted charter prices for the average angler.

Now the Feds are planning the next assault on the sport-fishing business.

"This draft plan is a loser," Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council said. "The charter guys should demand a higher GHL (guideline harvest level). The people would get behind them. Anything less is a lose.

"Arne Fuglvog told AOC last spring that the 'train had left the station' a long time ago regarding the allocation of the GHL for halibut between commercial and charter. (But) Sen. Murkowski should be asked in a public forum if that will remain her position on the subject now that Arne is going to jail. I'm sure an act of Congress could stop the federally administered 'train' that gave 85 percent of a public resource to the commercial halibut industry."

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have yet to say anything publicly about the NMFS plan.

Regional biologists said the state's position is still being developed in Juneau by Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, the former executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.

Fuglvog once served as president of that group, too.

CORRECTION: Glenn Merrill's name was misspelled in an early version of this story.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com