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Southeast Alaska fishing charters suggest daily closures to limit catch

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Halibut charter skippers in Southeast Alaska -- struggling to stay in business in the wake of a federal regulation limiting their clients to the catch of only one, small halibut per day -- are suggesting the North Pacific Fishery Management Council consider some old and traditional methods for limiting catches in sport fisheries: Closed days for fishing and slot limits.

The council is an organization that has for decades overseen the industrial-scale commercial fisheries that mine the coast off Alaska, but the body has almost no experience in managing sport fisheries. Pushed by commercial interests that think sport catches of halibut have grown too large, however, the council earlier this year, with the support of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, imposed a limited entry scheme for charter boats and allowed the International Pacific Halibut Commission to slap severe restrictions on charter anglers in the the Alaska Panhandle.

Charter-boat anglers in the area north and south of the state capitol in Juneau were limited to one fish per day under 37 inches. As a result, both the size of the catch and the size of the average fish caught in Southeast plummeted.

Charter operators who saw what was coming at mid-season appealed to NOAA to relax the catch restriction because the sport catch was clearly going to be way under the established harvest level. NOAA, however, refused to help. As a result, the charters caught only 390,000 pounds of halibut, less than half of the allotted 790,000 pounds. Commercial fishing interests, which caught about 2.3 million pounds of halibut, declared the 390,000 pound catch a victory for the resource, arguing that keeping sport catches "commensurate with current abundance is critical to rebuilding the Southeast halibut resource'' and trumpeting the importance of catching halibut "to provide 35 million meals per year to 9-10 million U.S. consumers compared to only 230,000 charter clients.''

Southeast halibut charters in a fight for their survival, having by now recognized they have no hope of ever getting more than about a quarter share of the halibut allocation, are appealing to the council to at least junk the one-fish-under-37-inch size limit designed to hold the weight of the catch down in favor of sport-fishing oriented rules that will keep the number of fish caught near the same but increase the poundage. The size-limit restriction this summer, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures, resulted in the size of the average halibut kept in Southeast falling to 9.4 pounds. Charter skippers doubt they can get many tourists to spend hundreds of dollars to catch one dinky, salmon-size halibut.

So they have proposed other means of regulating the fishery -- namely a one-day per week closure to charter fishing or a reverse slot limit that would allow anglers to keep fish smaller than 45-inches or larger than 65 inches. The slot limit would protect fish from 45 to 65 inches. Those are primarily big, female spawners -- the most ecologically valuable fish in terms of halibut reproduction. The Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, which offered the suggestions, admitted it wasn't happy with either, but thought one or the other would be better than the status quo.

Whether either -- or both together -- would adequately reduce harvests is unclear as are harvest quotas at this time. The Halibut Commssion, the U.S.-Canada treaty organization that sets the quotas, has warned that quotas maybe be going down sharply because Pacific halibut are struggling. There are a lot of small, immature fish, but a shortage of spawners.

To further cut sport catches of halibut statewide, some have already suggested an annual limit for anglers. State officials now impose such limits on king salmon and say they work well, but federal regulators have been reluctant to accept the idea.

And the state has been even more reluctant to use its influence to shape halibut catches off Alaska's coast. Despite Gov. Sean Parnell's regular attacks on federal management of Alaska resources, the state has bowed down before the council family, possibly because of the significant influence commercial fishermen wield in the Alaska Legislature. Rep. Bill Thomas of Haines, the co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee and a commercial halibut fishermen, has noted that steadily increasing reductions in the commercial quotas have cut his catch of halibut and halibut prices -- though they have gone up - have not gone up enough to maintain his income.

Commercial halibut fishermen are now getting $7.40 to $7.50 per pound for prime fish. Only five or six years ago, they were getting about half that. The high prices paid commercial fishermen have made halibut a luxury-only purchase for most Amerian families, and fueled speculation that the decline in halibut spawners might have something to do with commercial fishermen "high-grading'' their catches to maximize profits. A 40-pound over larger halibut, one of the prime pawners, is generally worth 60- to 80-cents per pound more than a 10- to 20-pound flatfish.

Halibut Commission scientists call halibut caught and then tossed back dead "wastage.'' And they don't think wastage of fish in the 10-pound and up range a big problem. A commission report pegs that loss at only about 140,000 pounds, but the same report fingers dead, under-32-inch fish as a sizeable loss. According to the commission, about 6.34 million pounds of under-32 halibut is rolled back into the sea dead each year. That's more than twice as much halibut as was landed in Southcentral Alaska charter fisheries last year, and the region supports the state's most popular charter fisheries working out of the ports of Homer, Seward, Valdez, Whittier, Deep Creek, Ninilchik and a few others.

It has been suggested the wastage could be lowered by reducing the minimum size limit for commercial halibut, but people familiar with the fishing industry say that even if fishermen were to keep the little fish, processors wouldn't buy them.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.