Is this a warning for Alaskans elsewhere?
Lodge owners in the Alaska Panhandle community of Gustavus have some simple career advice for halibut charter guides in the rest of Alaska if the National Marine Fisheries Service goes forward with a plan that would cut the 2012 limit of charter anglers to one fish: Lock the doors, they say, and hang up the "Gone Out Of Business" sign.
Southeast Alaska fishing guides have been operating under a one fish limit for two years, and this season it went from one fish to one fish only under 37 inches. Steve Brown, owner of the Alaska Anglers Inn, said that sealed the fate of his business. He expects this to be his last season because he can't sell fishing trips for what is, by Alaska standards, one small fish.
The new fishing limits for charters are part of a plan developed by the federal fisheries service and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a government entity controlled by powerful commercial fishing interests, in order to roll back the catch of Alaska charter businesses to provide more fish for the commercial longline halibut fleet.
The changes could devastate a whole segment of the Alaska tourism industry.
"Typically by this time of year, I have 120 to 150 people with deposits already booked for next year," Brown said Tuesday. "I don't have one fisherman booked now. They tell me, 'It's just too expensive for us to come up here and catch a tennis racket every day.'
"We're catching six to eight fish that are too large to retain before we catch one we can keep. It's like working in a Twilight Zone," Brown said.
Down the road from the Anglers Inn at the Eagles Nest Lodge, Kent Huff is in the same predicament. He said he would have gone out of business this summer if not for the people who put their money down a year ago, thinking they'd be able to come to Alaska in the summer of 2011 to catch and keep the monster halibut of their dreams.
"We have all the hostage clients," Huff said, "all the people who'd already paid."
Once those hostage clients are gone, there are no more. Nobody is re-booking. A round-trip ticket from Seattle to Gustavus costs almost $1,000. A three-day stay at Huff's lodge is another $1,780 per person.
Huff was hanging on when clients could dream of posing next to a 100-, 200- or even 300-pound fish hanging from the hoist on the boat, but with the limit set at what Brown calls a "tennis racket" fish, nobody wants to spend the money. They can go fishing to the south in British Columbia where the limit remains one halibut of any size.
"When it was two fish any size, my lodge was full," Huff said. "When it went to one fish any size, we lost 20 percent of our business."
Halibut regulation all about allocations, not conservation
Next year, at one fish under 37 inches, Huff expects to lose another 40 percent or more of what business he has left -- if he keeps the doors open. He's not sure he can cover his overhead with so few people visiting. His clients tell him they can't justify paying the high costs of a fishing vacation in Alaska if the only fish they can keep is a halibut under 37 inches, a fish of about 23 pounds.
"I guess I'm going to be selling my business to someone who has 40 aluminum boats," Huff said.
Anglers using rental boats to fish by themselves can still catch two halibut per day in Southeast. The fisheries management council has directed its NMFS counterparts to impose the 50 percent catch reduction only on guided anglers.
The council, Brown, Huff and others said, appears fearful of the blowback it might face if it tries to cut the limit of all 49th state anglers to one fish, so it has played a divide and conquer game.
Not only has it split the charter and recreational fishing communities, it has also split the charter businesses themselves. The one fish under 37-inch limit was imposed only in Southeast Alaska this year. The limit was left at two fish for the northern Gulf of Alaska communities of Yakutat, Cordova, Seward and Kodiak, as well as for Cook Inlet -- where the charter halibut fisheries are centered in Homer, the self-proclaimed "Halibut Capital of the World."
Huff, Brown and some other small business owners in Southeast Alaska tried to get halibut charter owners in the northern part of the state to join them in an effort to battle the council-developed, fisheries service-instituted halibut plan when the size limit was first proposed, but nobody wanted to spend the money. Now, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game halibut biologist Scott Meyer, the way the numbers look, Cook Inlet charters will almost certainly be facing a one-fish limit next year just like Southeast, and they too could get hit with a size restriction.
The issue is not about conservation, though some commercial fishing organizations and the federal fisheries service have, at times, tried to portray it that way. But the issue is really about allocation.
Commercial halibut fishermen believe it is unfair that the charter fisheries, which provide the boats from which recreational anglers harvest somewhat less than 15 percent of the halibut caught off Alaska, operate under a fixed, guideline harvest level. Commercial boats, on the other hand, face a floating harvest quota that moves with the allowable harvest in the fishery. Halibut have been in decline in recent years. Because of that the allowable harvest has been going down. That's led to an increase in the percentage of halibut taken by Alaska charter businesses in some localized areas.
As it is now, charter fishermen get nearly 20 percent of the halibut in Cook Inlet. In Southeast, the charter allocation had been approaching 25 percent before NMFS slammed down the one-fish limit.
That is the same one-fish limit that looks to be coming to Cook Inlet next year thanks to the "final rule" proposed for a federal "catch share plan" to take more than a million pounds of halibut from the charter fisheries and give it to the commercial fleet. The rule is due to go to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in late September.
A committee of the Alaska Legislature is meeting on Sept. 1 to discuss whether the state should protest, and the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell is expected to say something on the rule before the end of the public comment period. But at this point many say it is unlikely the Feds will be dislodged from the path down which they have started.
Earlier this year, the federal agency put about 30 percent of the halibut charter businesses under a limited entry plan that awarded permits only to those companies in operation in 2008 that could show they had also been fishing in 2004 or 2005. The state and the Alaska Congressional delegation turned a blind eye to that action. The reaction of some in the fisheries service leadership, Brown said, was to concede that much of what is going on might be unfair, but then beg off on doing anything about it.
"Jim Balsiger, in a private conversation with me on the phone, told me we should sue the government," Brown said. "This from a guy who won't answer a question until he has checked with his legal team. It would cost millions of dollars to fight this."
Balsiger oversees the fisheries service as the regional administrator for National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration fisheries, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department. Balsiger could not be reached for comment. "He's in meetings all day," said deputy regional administrator Doug Mecum, who added, however, that he was comfortable denying Brown's claim about his boss suggesting a lawsuit.
"We don't do that," Mecum said. "Jim would never do something like that. That's something Jim would not do."
Balsiger was, however, comfortable voting to increase the kill of Alaska king salmon in offshore trawl fisheries to benefit interests for which his wife was lobbying. He did that last winter at an unusual council meeting held in the isolated community of Nome.
Huff was at that meeting trying to lobby the Council to change the Southeast charter rules. He didn't have any luck.
One commercial fisherman, he said, expressed the view "I don't believe any of you should be allowed to fish halibut," and a council member suggested to Huff that maybe all charter fisheries should be limited to "catch-and-release" fishing with their clients then be given a box of by-catch halibut to take home. About 10 to 11 million pounds of by-catch is now thrown away by the billion-dollar trawl fisheries off the Alaska coast. Trawlers are required to dump the halibut, most of which is dead, because fisheries managers fear that if the trawlers are allowed to keep it, they will shift their netting operations to target more halibut.
The halibut are worth upwards of $5 per pound. Pollock, the mainstay of the trawl fleet, are worth less than 25 cents per pound.
There is no way to independently verify Huff's claims as to statements made in Nome. And both he and Brown admit they have an agenda. They are in an economic fight for their lives. Both have invested heavily in Gustavus businesses over the course of the past 14 years.
"I came fishing (in Gustavus) back in 1997," Brown said, "and I fell in love with the place. I just decided that it was the place that I wanted to not only make accessible to my family for fishing, but I've always been a small businessman in several different industries. I just really felt compelled to get involved and build a lodge my wife and I could be proud of.
"It was a big gamble, but that's been one of the things in life that defined me … and that's what's great about America. If you work hard and play by the rules you can be successful."
Nervous breakdowns over 'fishtics'
Brown admits now that he should have looked at not only what the fishing rules were at the time, but the political history of Alaska fisheries management, or what Alaskans are prone to call "fishtics."
He admits he was a bit naive. "I was 15 years younger and focused on having some success. You just plow forward. For the first seven or eight years, I didn't take a dime out of the place," Brown said.
Any profits went back into expanding and improving the quality of the lodge, said Brown, now 54. "I've got actually six boats that we're fishing people on now. I've got a couple of backups because you never know when you're going to blow a motor. The expense, oh the expense.
"It costs me half a million dollars in the lodge to break even. I sold one fish (limit) for two years. For two years, we made it function," but one small fish just won't sell.
"I won't survive another year,'' Brown said. "My intentions are to close. I've had a couple nightmares trying to figure it out."
Another Gustavus lodge owner reportedly went out of business after suffering a nervous breakdown. There aren't a lot of business options in Gustavus. The community sits on a spectacular glacial outwash plain at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, but gets only limited park traffic. Most visitors to Glacier Bay come and go in cruise ships. The National Park Service hasn't exactly gone out of its way to encourage visitors to travel in other ways. There aren't many trails in the area, and not really much to do but fish or go boating.
The salmon fishing in Icy Strait is seasonally good, but significantly more expensive than in many other places in Alaska. Not to mention that most tourists seem to prefer stream or river fishing for salmon to ocean trolling, except possibly for big king salmon, of which the number in Southeast is limited.
The reality is that halibut were the economic mainstay, Brown said, and the government took them away without even considering the economic impacts.
NMFS didn't think it needed to do any sort of serious economic study. Rachel Baker, the agency's authority on the halibut sport fishery, has no idea of the economic consequences of the agency's action. Huff said it is going to cost plenty of jobs -- the staff who work for him, the staff who work for Brown, and individual boat skippers.
"I don't own boats," Huff said. "So I pay out a lot of money -- $1,800, $1,900 per captain" for a week.
And then there are the taxes. Gustavus is a community of less than 450 people incorporated as a city only a few years ago. A goodly number of the people who live there are retirees. The city voted this summer to close its medical clinic because it couldn't afford it. There are no property taxes. Most city revenue comes from business taxes.
"I paid $28,000 in taxes to the town last year," Huff said. There's a 4 percent bed tax, a 3 percent general sales tax, and a $10 "fish box" flat tax. If the lodges go away, he said, so do the taxes.
The community itself was struggling before this. Huff wonders if the actions by the federal fisheries service couldn't just kill it.
Surprise: Feds didn't think through jobs impact
But the fisheries service doesn't care, Brown said. It's got only one thing on its mind, he said; it's dead-on committed to doing what that council controlled by commercial fishermen wants it to do to benefit commercial fishermen.
"Not one of their objectives had anything to do with protecting jobs," he said, "and they assumed every fish we retained would be that maximum length. You just beat your skippers to death trying to catch that 37-inch fish."
The fish now are averaging 31 inches, Brown said. Size is a big issue because the charter allocation is based on the commercial fishing standard, which is measured in poundage. A 31-inch fish is estimated to weigh about 10 pounds less than a 37-inch fish.
Poundage wise, the Southeast charter halibut fishery was lagging 50 percent behind the catch it was allowed at the end of June. Given that, the charter operators appealed to federal fisheries managers to waive the size limit and go back to a two-fish limit.
They got as far as a scheduled meeting. It was canceled the day before it was to happen.
There was no explanation. The limit remained at one fish under 37 inches.
It's pretty clear, Brown said, that the fishery service dances to a tune sung by commercial fishing interests.
"How can a resource owned by the American people be hijacked by an industry the way it has been?" he asked. "At what point do we get the government out of the back pocket of the commercial interests? If we could get the message out on a nationwide level, maybe we could get a ground swell. But I've reached out to people who fished last decade," and it's hard to get their attention.
"They just don't believe this," he said.
The average American can't get his or her head around the idea an industry group -- any industry group -- could so fully take over a government agency. Imagine if the Big Three American automakers -- GM, Chrysler and Ford -- were given the power to cap the import of foreign cars at 15 percent of the fleet. It just couldn't happen.
But in some of the halibut fisheries off Alaska it is already happening.
And in that, maybe the charter operators of Gustavus have good news for the charter operators in Homer and elsewhere in Alaska: Hey folks, it could be worse.
Then again, give it a year and it could be worse.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com