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Southcentral Alaska halibut anglers may face bag limit cuts by 2014

Craig Medred
Illustration Aaron Jansen

Once more the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a government entity dominated by commercial fishermen, has voted to slash the halibut catch of charter anglers in Alaska. What happens next remains to be seen. A similar council action was vetoed by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last year after charter boat skippers from coastal communities protested the lack of analysis of likely economic fallout in small, tourism-dependent towns.

Whether federal overseers in the nation's capital will find the latest council action acceptable is unknown. The council voted 10-1 to reduce by about a quarter the allowable charter catch in Southcentral and by a third in Southeast.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game halibut biologist Scott Meyer said cuts of that size -- which will not come until 2014 at the earliest -- would almost certainly force bag-limit reductions in the halibut charter fishery. Tourism suffered greatly in the Panhandle when the charter halibut bag limits there were slashed from two fish to one in 2009.

Still, Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell offered no objection to new cuts when the council took up the issue last week.

Bag limits in Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska south of Anchorage, the state's largest city, have to date remained at two fish despite the reductions in Southeast and a shrinking halibut stock. Southcentral communities have mainly suffered because of cuts in the commercial fishery tied to unexplained declines in halibut in the North Pacific. Soaring prices for commercially caught halibut have only partially offset the financial losses to those commercial fishermen faced with steadily shrinking catch quotas.

Angry about the losses, they lobbied the council to cut charter catches to force the charter businesses to "share the pain" of conservation. The charters catch less than 20 percent of the halibut, but they have been fishing under a fixed guideline harvest level. The result has been that their percentage of the overall catch has increased as the commercial catch has fallen. The changes approved by the council are designed to take some of that increased percentage away from the charters and give it back to commercial interests.

An analysis completed by the regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an agency under NOAA, indicates the North Pacific Council's action could pump $2 million to $5 million into the pockets of 1,431 commercial fishermen in Southcentral and Southeast. How much money would be lost by charter businesses is unknown. The same applies for the many coastal businesses dependent on tourists who come to halibut fish, but then engage in other activities.

A 333-page NMFS analysis of the situation concluded the economics of the situation are too difficult for the federal agency to try to sort out. "Estimating the loss to the charter operator, let alone all other sectors, is complex," the report said. "Those losses may more than offset the gains to the commercial sector, but because of the limited information available and the assumptions that would be required, those estimates are not generated."

Nor does the NMFS report provide any analysis of other economic changes spawned by an evolving commercial halibut fishery. Fishing-related businesses in coastal communities have been hit not only by reductions in the catch of the commercial fishery, but by federal regulatory changes that led to large consolidation and job losses in the commercial fleet. Where once there were 3,073 halibut quota shareholders who spread money around coastal communities for gear, fuel and food, there are now less than half that number, and they are increasingly efficient.

Since the federal government created what are called "individual fishing quotas" and gave commercial fishermen shares of the halibut resource, those shares have been bought and sold between fishermen. Small, inefficient fishing operations have generally faded away to be replaced by larger, more efficient fishing operations. The costs of this job loss to coastal communities is unknown, but one major change has been noted.

A 2006 study by a researcher at the University of Washington warned that the shifts in IFQ shares were gutting the economies of the smallest coastal communities on Kodiak Island. A similar phenomenon has been observed statewide. Charter businesses catering to tourists have moved in to help some of the communities losing commercial fishing jobs, but those businesses are now threatened by Council actions.

Other economic changes associated with consolidation in the commercial fishery -- be they good or bad -- are unknown. Prior to IFQs, the city of Kodiak was the state's big halibut port. More than a quarter of all halibut caught in the North Pacific were landed there. Since the quota system, all of that has changed. Top-port status is now a contest between Kodiak and Homer, which handled less than a quarter as much halibut as Kodiak in the 1980s.

The economic benefit to Homer from its new status as one of Alaska's top commercial halibut ports is, however, unclear. A considerable volume of the halibut offloaded in Homer is trucked to Canada to be processed. S.M. Products in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, notes that since 1974 it "has grown to become one of the largest buyers, processors and marketers of wild Pacific halibut in North America." The B.C. provincial government, in a study this year on "Traceability within the British Columbia Halibut Industry," noted S.M. gets a lot of its fish from Alaska.

The economic consequences in the 49th state are unknown. Halibut charter operators have said repeatedly they want the economics of the entire halibut fishery studied before the North Pacific Council enacts cutbacks in charter fishing likely to cost even more Alaska jobs and revenue. Those pleas fell on deaf ears at the council meetings, where commissioners appeared fully committed to simply making the charters "share the pain." The council voted to cap charter harvests at a maximum of 18.9 percent of the halibut catch in Southcentral Alaska and 18.3 percent in Southeast Alaska.

Economist Keith Criddle, a former Utah State University professor now with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has calculated a 30 percent share -- a level more than 10 points higher -- might provide Alaska with the greatest economic bang per pound of halibut. Though prices paid for commercially caught halibut remain near record highs at $6 to $7 per pound on the dock, a variety of studies have concluded the fish are worth even more if they can be used to induce people to fly to Alaska to catch them. The big benefits come in the associated spending by tourists on charters, hotels, rental cars, dining and more.

Charter boat skippers say they are going to continue to push for an economic analysis of the proposed changes in the fishery. Both charter operators and recreational fishermen have repeatedly complained to elected officials that they lack fair representation on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

One of the 11 votes on the council is reserved for a sport-fishing representative. It is currently held by Robert E. "Ed" Dersham, a retired charter operator from Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula. Dersham, who has battled health problems, currently lives in Anchorage. He was named to the council after former Anchorage banker Ed Rasmuson resigned.

Rasmuson left with a written warning to then-Gov. Sarah Palin that "the biggest problem facing the NPFMC is that everyone has some sort of vested interest." Rasmuson, in his letter of resignation, told Palin she needed to appoint "an advocate for the sports and environmental communities." Palin, a sometimes commercial fishermen herself, named Dersham to the vacant seat. Sport and environmental activists describe him as a nice, elderly gentleman, but no advocate.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com