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NOAA head's remarks show misconceptions

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), deserves a lot of praise for her recent visit to Homer, along with Sen. Mark Begich, to answer questions and discuss the Catch Sharing Plan for Pacific Halibut on Aug. 23. They attended a luncheon hosted by the Homer Chamber of Commerce with an overflow crowd.

At that luncheon, it was evident that several misconceptions exist about this issue:

• Lubchenco stated, "The halibut charter fleet has grown exponentially in Alaska." This is not true; there is a limited entry program that caps the growth of the fleet. In reality, the halibut charter fishing fleet began shrinking in 2006, coincident with additional insurance requirements in state law.

• "The relative fraction of landings has changed dramatically between sectors." In Southcentral Alaska, the recreational guided fishing sector has lived within its allocation since 2007 and exceeded it only in one year during the last decade. Indeed, the Catch Sharing Plan, with its provisions to allow anglers on charter boats to "rent" additional fish from commercial fishermen, could result in more landings, and less accountability, in the charter fleet.

• "Conservation science takes precedence over economic data." The Catch Sharing Plan is not a conservation measure; it is simply a reallocation decision. This decision needs to be based on optimizing the economic value of the resource to the nation. That is why the charter fishing industry is insisting on accurate economic data on the value of the fishery to the economy. That is necessary to assign allocations to both commercial and recreational sectors.

Social and economic data is also science. NMFS' failure to use the best available science on the halibut fishery causes us to question the biological science used to make management decisions. The proposed rule on catch sharing in the Alaska halibut fishery would result in a reduction of the bag limit from two fish to one for anglers who fish on charter vessels.

• "The size of the population has decreased." The number of halibut today is actually on the high end of the historical range but the average size of the individual halibut is indeed getting smaller. Reallocation of fish from the charter sector to the commercial sector does nothing to address this problem. Could the premium paid by processors to commercial fishermen for large females have something to do with this change within the population?

• "The Catch Sharing Plan will probably evolve in the future." The allocation of halibut in Alaska will not be able to be altered in the future because it sets non-discretionary harvest restrictions based on decisions from an international commission of three Americans and three Canadians -- and it removes these decisions from the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. Americans lose an important right of judicial review of future allocation decisions.

The recreational charter fishing industry in Alaska is asking for an extension of the public comment period for another 60 days. This is only fair, because the charter operators have been working overtime throughout the comment period, which began in late July, at the height of a short fishing season. As it stands now, the comment period ends on Sept. 21. Many charter boat captains suspect that this is not unintentional and the complex Catch Sharing Plan is being rammed down their throats. They are not trying to take allocation away from commercial fishermen, and if the plan is scrapped, everyone retains a viable fishery. For more info: www.alaskacharter.org.

An uncomfortable question remained unanswered at the luncheon in Homer: "What was the role of former North Pacific Fishery Management Council member Arne Fuglvog in the management of recreational halibut?" As Lubchenco well knows, Fuglvog pleaded guilty in federal court to serious fishing violations of the Lacey Act. Will her agency release to the public all emails, notes and written communication from Fuglvog (and members of his fishing associations) to NMFS regarding the management of Pacific halibut?

Jim Martin is the West Coast regional director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.