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NOAA suspends Alaska halibut charter catch-share plan

Craig Medred

A sigh of relief and a fair bit of skepticism about the future seemed to be the reaction of Alaska halibut charter operators Wednesday as they heard news that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service was reconsidering a plan to crack down on their harvests.

Rex Murphy, a halibut skipper who helped organize opposition to the plan in Homer -- the "Halibut Capital of the World" -- said he wanted to see as the next step a legitimate attempt  "to address the issues.

"Problem is -- with the North Council constituency-- they'll probably do the same thing again," he added.

The North Council, as Murphy calls it, is the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, an organization dominated by powerful commercial fishing interests. The Council advises NOAA on fishing regulations for the oceans off the coasts of the 49th state.

The Council this year developed what was called a "catch-sharing plan" to share the pain of conservation between Alaska's halibut charter fleet and the commercial longline fishery, which catches the bulk of North Pacific halibut. Because halibut populations are declining, for reasons not quite clear, the commercial longline catch quota has been steadily going down. The charter halibut catch, on the other hand, has remained fairly stable for years.

That said, as commercial catches have fallen, the charter take has increased as percentage of the overall catch.

Commercial fishermen have been screaming that's not fair, so the Council came up with a plan to shrink a charter catch approaching 20 percent of the total harvest in Cook Inlet and north Gulf of Alaska waters back down to back under 15 percent, at least. The plan would have cut the daily bag limit for charter anglers in what is called Area 3A from two fish per day to one starting next year.

Many charter operators expressed doubts they could stay in business with a one-fish limit. Many said they are already struggling to sell two-fish outings at $200 to $250 for the day. Cutting prices isn't a realistic option, many charter operators say, given fuel costs that have made it an expensive proposition just getting to the fishing grounds.

Would Alaskans pay for 1-fish halibut charters?

Charter skippers weren't the only ones objecting, either. Anglers chimed in and the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) -- a U.S.-Canada treaty organization charged with overseeing the health of West Coast salmon stocks -- warned that a restriction on the charter fleet might soon prove meaningless in terms of regulating the sport catch.

The Council plan would have left the limit for unguided recreational anglers at two fish in Area 3A. The IPHC expressed fears that a one-fish limit on charters with a two-fish limit for unguided anglers might just shift fishing from guided trips to rental operations. There are already indications that is happening in Southeast Alaska, regulated as Area 2C, where a one-fish limit was imposed on charters last year.

Halibut charters there reported business fell 20 percent or more after that happened, and most added that it would have been a lot worse but for advanced bookings made before the one-fish limit was imposed. Business only worsened in Southeast this year when NOAA further restricted the charter halibut limit to one fish under 37 inches.

Some charter operators said that has just about finished them off. Many are talking about going out of business or finding something new to try to sell.

These were ominous signs for operators in area 3A to the north. In small towns like Seward, Homer, Whittier and Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula, and Cordova, Yakutat and Kodiak on the Gulf of Alaska coast, much of the business comes from Alaska residents, who were already balking at rising charter fees. If business in Southeast couldn't sell fishing trips to free-spending charters from Outside, they wondered, how were they going to sell them to tight-fisted Alaskans?

These fears sparked widespread opposition to the Council's charter catch-share plan. Donna Bondioli, co-owner of Captain B's Alaskan C's Adventures in Homer, said that when NOAA opened up the plan to public comment, more than 4,000 people responded. And most of the comments were negative.

All of this was bad news for Alaska longliners, an embattled minority who feel constantly threatened by the masses. Most longliners had strongly supported the catch-sharing plan. Many doubted claims that such a plan would hurt tourism. Kevin Hogan, who sits on the Homer City Council, disparagingly dismissed the fears of charter operators, saying their problem wasn't with catch limits but with credit, and failure to pay city fuel dock bills. Because of that, Hogan said, charters couldn't get fuel, and thus couldn't fish at all.

A decades-long Alaska fisheries rivalry

Emotions were, and are, especially heated on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Alaska's largest city, where commercial and sport fishermen have been locked in a decades-long battle over who gets to catch Cook Inlet salmon. The commercial fisheries still catch the vast majority of those fish, but sport anglers and personal-use dipnetters have been pecking away at the commercial catch year after year. The state Board of Fisheries got so tired of mediating annual skirmishes that it developed a policy that stipulated Cook Inlet issues couldn't be revisited every year unless there was an emergency situation. The state Fish Board is split almost equally between commercial and sport interests, but most Kenai commercial fishermen are of the opinion they never get a fair shake from the board.

They were hoping for better from the North Pacific Council, where sport interests have one vote among 11 voting members. That NOAA over-rode the Council's action was sure to upset most of them as Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, noted:

Announcement of a delay in the implementation of the halibut catch sharing plan will please some Alaskans and disappoint others but in the end there's a lot more work to be done on this longstanding, divisive issue and some tough decisions to be made in the interim. Both the commercial and charter halibut sectors are important to Alaskans and the state's economy.

Years of divisiveness between these sectors needs to be resolved with a plan that fairly sets allocations, clarifies the rules, addresses each sector's unique needs and allows flexibility for changing times. I hope the continued review of this important matter will lead to development of a plan which is fair to all users and works to grow Alaska's economy and ensure the sustainability of our halibut stocks.

Begich has tried to moderate the dispute. Whether that is possible remains to be seen. Charter operators want an economic study to determine in what way halibut can produce the highest economic return to the state. One such study, completed half a decade ago, suggested a 30-70 split of fish between the charter and longline fleets would maximize the amount of business for Alaska.

Whether a new study will be undertaken remains to be seen.

Fisheries Service officials in Alaska have insisted they don't have the money for a new study. But one suggestion from NOAA in Wednesday's statement was that better economic information was needed. The one-page statement announced that NOAA wasn't going to approve the "catch sharing plan."

NOAA decision a surprise

It caught some by surprise. NOAA has oversight responsibility for the Council, but generally tags along with Council recommendations. And the Council had endorsed the latest proposed regulations during public comment, with its executive director reaffirming the Council's view the catch-share plan was more than fair despite the many charter and recreational anglers crying foul.

Commercial fisheries account for about 90 percent of the halibut killed off the Alaska coast, and a lot of recreational anglers -- both guided and unguided -- question a 90-10 split of what is supposed to be a publicly owned resource.

Bob Penney, a fisheries activist in Kenai, noted that it isn't like the commercial fishery pays for the fish the way oil companies pay to drill for publicly owned oil. Or the way timber companies pay to cut publicly owned timber. The commercial fishermen, Penney said, get the fish for nothing.

Penney would prefer to see them lease the resource from the government, but that would require a radical restructuring of American offshore fisheries.

Treatment of Alaska halibut harvests is not unique. As in many fisheries, the valuable catch is divvied up among competing commercial interests. In the case of halibut, commercial longliners catch and sell the bulk, but a significant number -- about 6.5 million pounds -- is killed and discarded as waste in trawl fisheries for pollock and other deep water species of fish.

Meanwhile, wastage in the long fisheries is also a growing problem. Halibut operators had charged that it makes little sense to try to destroy their industry in the supposed name of "conservation" when charters catch fewer fish than are killed incidental to trawling. When the so-called "wastage'' in the longline fishery has been growing at a rate of more than 25 percent per year.

Longline fishery wastage -- mostly undersize fish that are caught and released but die -- is now up to about 2.5 million pounds. The charter fisheries in 2C and 3A, on the other hand, account for about 5 million pounds of halibut catch.

Thousands weigh in on NOAA plan

NOAA, in its short statement, said it was bombarded with thousands of public comments on the catch-share plan that "raised a number of policy and technical issues." The agency said it believed the Council needs to look at those issues before any plan moves forward. Among the issues specifically cited in the statement were:

  • The economic impact of potential cuts in halibut quota for the charter fishery. The quota as proposed in the catch-share plan would have, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials, cut in half the halibut limit for charters next year, reducing it from two fish to one per day. Charter operators said they expected few anglers to be willing to pay the costs of a charter for one fish.
  • The effects of a catch-share plan at lower levels of halibut abundance. Charter operators note that they take a small percentage of the halibut harvest -- less than 20 percent -- even in Cook Inlet with the biggest sport halibut fishery in the state. A plan that cuts their catch in half at low abundance has far more of an impact on their business than scaled reductions in the commercial fishery.  
  • And problems with a scheme to allow charter operators to lease fish from commercial fishermen. The commercial catch is now all tied up in so-called "individual fishing quotas."

The federal government, at the direction of the Council, gave these shares of the halibut stock to a select group of commercial fishermen in 1995. Since 1995, IFQs have been available for sale between fishermen. Some commercial fishermen have invested heavily in buying up IFQs. To try to protect their investments and provide fish for the charter sport fishery, the Council proposed letting charter operators lease quota and then charge their client for catching extra quota fish. No one is really sure how that would work.

NOAA didn't get into the many problems with leasing except to say "other technical issues were raised." The statement said NOAA believed it could write rules solving some of the technical issues, but was kicking the plan back to the Council anyway. The agency suggested the Council take the issue up at its December meeting or schedule a special meeting.

Meanwhile, NOAA told the Council to work with the International Pacific Halibut Commission -- the treaty organization that sets halibut harvest levels for the U.S. and Canada -- to come up with a management plan for next year. "At a minimum," the statement added, "NOAA Fisheries encourages the Council to consider the existing Guideline Harvest Level allocations …"

Maintaining the guideline harvest level while a new plan is worked out would basically maintain the status quo in the fishery for a year while a new regulatory scheme is developed.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series looking at how fisheries regulations impact Alaska fishermen, particularly the small businesses that rely on fishing and drive the economies of many small Alaska communities. Follow Craig Medred's coverage of the Syndicate Fish Wars.