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Alaska lawmakers wade into halibut politics

Eric Christopher Adams

A proposal in the state House of Representatives seeks to address what's widely perceived as unfair regulation of Alaska's $1 billion a year offshore fisheries.

The House Fisheries Special Committee has introduced Concurrent Resolution 13, which if approved would call for adding representatives of the state's sport fishery and rural subsistence communities on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The Council is responsible for managing halibut, Pollock, sablefish, mackerel, rockfish and other fish species in a million-square-mile zone covering the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and south along the North American Pacific coast to Canada. It also manages how many fish that commercial longliners and charter boat anglers are allowed to catch under conservation rules established by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a Seattle-based treaty organization created in the 1920s to preserve halibut in Canadian and U.S. waters.

Frustrations over commercial fishing preference on the Council have bubbled into Alaska politics in recent years as adult halibut stocks have declined alongside the state's sportfish tourism industry.

Small business owners from the Alaska Panhandle north to Kodiak Island and Homer -- the "Halibut Capital of the World" -- who rely on fishing for their livelihoods have accused the Council of attempting to kill off Alaska's charter industry at the expense of commercial longliners and commercial trawling operations.

In 2010, the commercial fishing industry was responsible for more than 11 million pounds of so-called halibut "bycatch" caught, killed and dumped back into the sea.

Now lawmakers are taking the lead in hopes of corralling the governor into the debate. The Council is comprised of 15 representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon. Alaska's voting delegates include the Commissioner of Fish and Game, the regional director of fisheries for the federal government in Alaska, and five people appointed by the governor.

HCR 13 asks the governor "to designate a sport fish licensee and a subsistence user" for seats on the Council, since: 

It is estimated that 95 percent of rural households consume fish caught for subsistence, and sports fishing contributes over ($123 million) annually, their voices are vital to the sustainability of the resource and should be represented at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Both sport fish licensees and Alaska subsistence users who have participated in NPFMC meetings have commonly expressed frustration with the lack of opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process, and a lack of representation on the Council. Allocation of fish in waters managed by NPFMC, they say, directly affects the quantity of fish available for harvest by sports fish licensee and subsistence users.

Most Alaska halibut are harvested in federal waters overseen by the Council, and the trawlers that strip mine those waters have a salmon bycatch that has become increasingly controversial. Salmon, along with crab and herring, are mainstays of the marine fisheries managed by the state.

The rural delegate would be nominated by an unspecified Alaska Native organization representing "subsistence users"  according to a statement by the chairman of Alaska's House Fisheries Special Committee, Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks. 

Lawmakers will continue discussion of the resolution this week. Contact information for members of the House Fisheries Special Committee can be found here

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com