As Alaskans whose statehood was forged from a pressing need to protect salmon stocks, shouldn't we agree that every fishing sector must conserve when resources are depleted?
Shouldn't all halibut fishermen play a role in rebuilding the halibut resource?
Directed fishermen, charter and commercial, have a particular responsibility to lead this charge. The halibut Catch Sharing Plan (CSP) establishes percentage-based allocations for the charter and commercial sectors, allowing both sectors to "share the pain and share the gain" of resource fluctuations. It also establishes a more timely and effective management process to stop charter overfishing while still allowing the charter industry a continuous season of historic length. The CSP allocations are based on the historic split in 2004 between charter and commercial fishermen -- a split that awarded the charter industry 125 percent of its historic catch. The CSP also provides a one-way door for the charter fleet to lease commercial quota. Commercial fishermen made these concessions because after 18 years (rapid growth of the charter fleet and charter harvest was first identified in 1993), it's past time to put this issue of shared conservation to bed.
Instead of embracing conservation to aid the resource and their own future, some in the charter industry prefer to cry "allocation." Nothing could be further from the truth. In Southeast Alaska, the charter fleet has grossly exceeded (by 22 percent to 115 percent) its quotas every year since the GHL, or charter allocations, were implemented in 2004. Concurrently, the halibut resource has declined 58 percent and the commercial harvest has been slashed 78 percent, for a total reduction of 7.7 million pounds. Fortunately, the Southcentral charter fleet has not exceeded its allocation since 2007, but that allocation has remained stable while the commercial catch limit has been reduced 44 percent.
Without the halibut CSP, federal regulations do not manage the charter industry to stay within its allocation; nor do they directly tie charter allocations to resource abundance. This unfairly places the conservation burden on the commercial halibut fleet during these times of low abundance and puts the halibut stock at risk. Subsistence and sport fishermen also suffer as charter overharvest drives local depletion of safely accessible near-shore fishing spots. The CSP balances the needs of all who depend on the halibut resource -- from subsistence fishermen through the American consumers who access the halibut resource through the commercial fleet.
Commercial halibut fishermen understand that there are immediate and painful economic consequences of reduced harvests. They also understand that economic survival depends on conserving stocks for the long term regardless of economic pain. We have learned to conserve during times of low abundance -- that is why Alaska still has productive marine fisheries. We also recognize that our efforts to conserve and rebuild stocks are meaningless if other sectors do not reduce harvest, or, worse yet, overharvest. We have learned that sustainability trumps short-term economic loss and we believe in Alaska's sustainability model.
There are members of the charter industry who recognize this. In fact, the stakeholder committee that laid the groundwork for the council's action and the subsequent CSP now under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) included eight charter representatives who worked on this issue from February 2006 to October 2008. Their involvement led to the option of leasing quota from the commercial fleet. This option not only lessens the conservation pain but allows charter operations more business stability while the halibut stock rebuilds.
The real pain comes when the stock is no longer sustainable. As Alaskans who herald being the only state with a constitutional provision for sustained yield, shouldn't we all share the conservation burden? If you answer, "Yes," please support the conservation-driven Halibut Catch Sharing Plan now before NMFS. The deadline for comments is Sept. 21 -- go to http://www.regulations.gov, keyword RIN 0648-BA37.
Linda Behnken is president of the Halibut Coalition and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.
BY LINDA BEHNKEN
Alaska Dispatch Publishing