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Tough new federal halibut regulations draw rowdy Alaska fishermen to Homer

Craig Medred

HOMER -- A packed room of angry and worried small businessmen fearful the federal government is about to bankrupt them got some simple advice Friday night on how to deal with the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy: "Send a letter."

That was the best Glenn Merrill, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, could offer charter boat skippers facing imposition of what is being called a "halibut catch sharing" plan.

Almost everyone now seems in agreement the plan will cut the 2012 halibut limit for charter anglers to one fish per day. There also seems general agreement that the halibut taken away from anglers, who are now allowed two fish per day, will be given to the commercial charter halibut fishery. The goal of the NMFS, which is operating under the guidance of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, is to make sure the charters never catch more than 17 percent of the allowable harvest in Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska and preferably are kept in the 10 to 15 percent range.

The council that set this limit is an organization dominated by powerful commercial fishing interests. Arne Fuglvog, the now-disgraced former aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was a key player on the council when it set about to first freeze the charter catch beneath a "guideline harvest level" and now reduce it through the catch sharing plan. Fuglvog was at the time a longline halibut fisherman. He got out of that business to become a powerful aide to an Alaska senator, and he almost went on to become head of the NMFS.

Fuglvog's run ended when it was discovered he had been longline fishing illegally for years. He this week pleaded guilty to one count of illegal fishing in exchange for the U.S. Attorney letting him off with 10 months in jail and $150,000 in fines.

Some in the charter fleet believe Fuglvog is just the tip of a bigger iceberg. There was some talk of the storm now brewing in the fisheries as the "VECO of Alaska fisheries" with Fuglvog playing the part of former VECO Chairman Bill Allen. Allen was the man behind the influence peddling that sent several Alaska legislators to jail and sparked the conviction, later overturned, of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Stevens was the victim of overzealous federal prosecutors who demonstrated just how out of control government can run. Some of the charter skippers here think they are victims of another agency -- NMFS -- again showing how out of control government can run.

Merrill admitted to the sometimes hostile crowd that the charter fishery has done its part to comply with conservation standards set back in 2003. Not once in the convening years, he conceded, has the charter business exceeded its guideline harvest level. He admitted, too, that NMFS has no idea how much havoc the catch-share-plan is going to wreak on the charter business.

"We just don't have very good data," he said. "We don't have the data."

But when asked why NMFS didn't attempt to get the data, he didn't answer. Charter skippers say they have a pretty good idea of what the data would show: business would slow and some operators would go bankrupt because of a lack of anglers willing to pay $150 and more per day to fish for only one halibut. Merril countered that charters could lease some halibut from commercial fishermen who, in the NMFS view of things, own a public resource -- the fish -- as part of their "individual fishing quotas."

He couldn't quite explain how this leasing arrangement would work, however. Charter skippers would have to charge a lot more for a charter than they are now to cover the cost of buying quota share at upwards of $6 per pound, and if they appeared to be charging anglers for the fish itself, they would be breaking state laws that specifically ban the sale of sport caught fish. Merril had no answers to questions about these small technicalities.

He also couldn't explain what crisis -- if any -- was forcing the imposition of the catch-share-plan so quickly after a limited entry scheme that this year reduced the number of working charter business in the region by about 30 percent. Charter skippers suggested maybe the NMFS should wait to see how much that reduces the catch before forcing other new changes in the fishery.

Merrill's response was that the council wants the catch share plan down now.

He and assistant Rachel Baker put up a PowerPoint presentation showing how the new rules have been posted in their final form in the Federal Register, and how they are expected to be approved by fall, and how all these changes in the halibut fishery are expected to be in place by spring. One woman in the audience said she simply felt "violated" by what was happening. Merrill had simple advice for her and everyone else: "Send a letter."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com