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State to look at proposed Alaska halibut charter regulations

Craig Medred

With a deadline fast approaching on a federal plan to reduce the number of fish allocated to Alaska halibut charter businesses and hand them over to commercial fishermen, a handful of state legislators say they are going to take a look at the issue. To date, the state has ignored a so-called "catch share plan” developed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, an organization dominated by commercial fishing interests. The plan is on the verge of becoming law under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Service, whose Alaska regional director happens to be married to a lobbyist for commercial fishermen.

Public comments on the fisheries service's "final rule” on the catch plan are due Sept. 6. Final rules usually breeze through the federal process, but this one has run into some trouble since it became public knowledge the plan is likely to reduce the halibut bag limit for anglers on charters to one fish per day in Southcentral Alaska. The catch share plan would not affect unguided anglers who would continue with a limit of two fish, but large numbers of Alaskans in Southcentral -- lacking their own ocean-going boats -- do their halibut fishing on charters.

On top of that, halibut charter operators in Homer -- "The Halibut Capital of the World” -- and other coastal communities in the region say a one-fish limit would bankrupt them. Non-resident fishermen, they say, are not going to pay the high costs of traveling to Alaska to catch only one halibut, most especially if that one halibut is restricted to under 37 inches long. That could well become the limit, according to the fisheries service, which says it's trying to reduce inequities between the sport and commercial halibut fisheries.

The charter catch of halibut has been largely steady for years, but the commercial catch -- which is tied to the biomass of halibut available each year -- has been falling. The result is that the catch by tens of thousands of anglers fishing from charter boats has crept above 15 percent of the total catch of halibut, the majority of which had long been allocated to several thousand holders of Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) shares.

According to a 2010 report prepared for the fisheries council, there were 3,070 holders of IFQ permits and about 1,090 boats fishing halibut in 2009. The figures indicate that about two-thirds of people who were given halibut when the IFQ program was created back in the 1990s don't fish. Most of them lease their IFQ to active fishermen and collect money from what amounts to the sale of a public resource.

Still, the council contends it is unfair for these people to be losing market share -- and thus money -- to the increasing market share of halibut charters as halibut stocks decline. The cause of the decline is unclear. The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which regulates the fish for the U.S., Canada and Russia, has regularly forecast increases in halibut stocks only to later record declines.

There have been questions raised about illegal fishing in the largely Alaska-based longline fishery for halibut, and about by-catch -- that is, halibut caught and then thrown away -- in the massive nets of the Seattle-based offshore trawl fleet. The latter target pollock, but catch all sorts of other fish -- including halibut and salmon -- in their nets.

Halibut charter operators argue that it's clear they're not the cause of the stock decline, and they shouldn't be paying the price. They also note that while their percentage share of the catch has been increasing, it is in the state's best interests. Small, mom-and-pop charter operator businesses play key roles in the economies of many coastal communities.

Economists say it's hard to sort out where the dollars from halibut harvests flow once the fish are caught, but all agree that the more a resource is handled in Alaska, the more the state economy benefits. In simple language, there's more money to be made in having thousands fly to Alaska every year to catch one or two halibut than in having someone here catch halibut by the thousands to ship south.

The federal fisheries service says it has no data to indicate how its reallocation of halibut would affect the regional economy. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which has in the past attempted to quantify the economic values of some fisheries, has yet to issue an opinion on what it thinks of the catch share plan. Gary Slaven, the father of Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell, is a halibut fisherman who stands to benefits from the council's catch-share plan. Campbell is the state's representative on the council.

How much of this the Alaska House Special Committee on Fisheries plans to discuss Thursday is unclear. The committee has scheduled a 1 p.m. meeting at the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage where, according to a press release, it "will hear from state and federal officials and affected fishermen about the contentious proposed catch share plan (CSP)."

“Due to declining biomass, halibut allocation in the Gulf of Alaska is clearly a complicated matter,” that statement quotes Committee Chair Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks as saying. “The commercial and charter fisheries have been wrangling over halibut allocation since 1993. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s recommended catch sharing plan (CSP) for areas 2C and 3A specify exactly how the harvest will be allocated between the user groups. Although the State of Alaska does not have management authority, it is important for legislators and the public to understand the impact the CSP will have on the fisheries, local economies and the future of the resource.”

Thompson's staff reported representatives of Fish & Game; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the fisheries service; the Council, the Alaska Charter Association, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, and the CATCH Project have all been invited to the hearing. The latter is trying to develop a plan that would allow the halibut charter industry to buy IFQ shares from commercial fishermen to allow for the transition of halibut fisheries from their current, commercially dominated state to a more balanced allocation.

Some other organizations, such as the Alaska Outdoor Council, have questioned the idea of anyone paying commercial fishermen to buy back a public resource so legally licensed sport fishermen who hire a taxi to get to the fish will have a limit equal to that of wealthier anglers who can afford their own boats.

Thompson's office said web-streaming of the hearing should be available at http://alaskalegislature.tv once the meeting begins.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com