A lot of unanswered questions, concern about fishery access and uncertainty about who is responsible remain part of the debate over how to register and track halibut harvested by unguided anglers in rental boats.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council discussed a potential course of action on a registry system for rental boats carrying unguided anglers fishing for halibut.
It's been an issue for the council for several years, springing from a sore spot among the commercial and charter halibut fleets because of the more relaxed bag limits on unguided halibut anglers. Unguided anglers get to keep two fish per day of any size, while guided anglers only get to keep one in Southeast and two with a size limit on the second one in the Central Gulf of Alaska.
The charter sector is also subject to a sector harvest limit, while there's no real tracking on unguided angler halibut harvest.
In recent years, both private citizens and guides have been asking the council to do something about businesses renting out boats for unguided halibut fishing, particularly in Southeast. The intent of the higher bag limits was to protect access to the fishery for Alaskans, but some operations have begun commercializing it to bypass the charter sector.
Potential solutions, though, are difficult to pin down. Council member and charter business owner Andy Mezirow introduced a motion with three suggested alternatives for how to keep a closer track on unguided anglers in rental boats, including doing nothing, requiring registration for non-guided rental sportfishing vessels, and aligning the bag limits in the charter and non-guided sector.
Mezirow said this will be necessary given the growth in participation among nonguided anglers.
"Defining all of these entities as one sector, requiring registration and applying the same bag limits is a necessary action to understand and then manage this fleet," he said.
The total sportfishing harvest of halibut in regulation areas 2C and 3A — Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska, respectively — actually declined between 2003 and 2016, but the proportions of who was harvesting them changed.
In 2011, the harvest by unguided anglers surpassed the harvest of the charter fleet in Southeast, which may account for why people say the unguided sector is growing while the overall harvest numbers have stayed relatively flat, said Steve MacLean, the protected species coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
In the raw data, though, fish being caught on private boats by individual Alaskans are indistinguishable from fish coming off rental boats being hired by tourists, MacLean said.
"Unfortunately, we don't have data on the number of fish caught by rental boats," he said. "We don't have any way of understanding the number of halibut coming off these rental boats like other private boats."
Council staff researched the registration methods available and concluded that the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles registry is likely close to accurate, though it's hard to separate vessels specifically registered to rent for unguided halibut angling from other pleasure craft, he said.
"We did identify at least one company that is known to offer boats to rent for anglers for halibut that does not have any registered rental boats, but does have registered pleasure boats," he said. "We had to look up the business owner and look up their address, and then search for boats identified or registered to that owner or that address, and we did find that there were a number of boats registered to multiple people at that address, pleasure boats.
"We also do know that there are several companies that do have a boat that is registered as a rental boat but they do not offer fishing services. There are a number of venture companies that offer zodiacs for (activities like) wildlife viewing, glacier access. Those are all counted as rental boats."
While staff members were building the discussion paper, they also investigated which would be the best agency to implement registration or logbook requirements. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which works with the council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission to regulate halibut harvest, has one type of registration established but does not collect logbooks.
While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does collect sportfishing guide logbooks and conduct a private angler statewide harvest survey, the agency indicated that a separate logbook just for private halibut anglers would be burdensome, MacLean said.
Several residents of Southeast Alaska testified that they've seen operations like fishing lodges take advantage of the more liberal unguided bag limit by offering a day or two of guided fishing followed by a rental boat for unguided fishing or the establishment of "fishing clubs."
Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, urged the council to move forward with registration requirements. Though it looks like harvest is flat, the council has to account for the fact that overall halibut abundance in the Gulf of Alaska has been declining, she said.
"You've seen a drop in abundance, and you've seen the same level of removals," she said. "That's only happening because there's an increased effort."
There's a delicate line for the council to walk: protecting private resident access to the fishery and controlling business use of it. The motion isn't intended to impinge upon private Alaskans' ability to fish for halibut, especially as food, as citizen access to resources is provided for in the Alaska Constitution, Mezirow said.
However, that's something Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten said he's concerned about in this motion.
"There's a strong level of support from the commercial halibut industry for the direction this will take, and it sounds like there's a strong level of support from the charter industry … but there's really no lobby for the resident angler," he said. "When you look at the definition that's been used here … resident anglers are going to be impacted differently based on their own economic situation, perhaps."
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.