By Naomi Klouda
Business members of the Homer Chamber of Commerce voted Sunday night in favor of a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service that asks for another look at how halibut are allocated.
The vote, 78-6, was a nod to add a third point to the letter director Monte Davis is asked to write. Members request NMFS Catch Share Plan allocation to closely approximate the Guideline Harvest Level for Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska including Cook Inlet and Homer.
The Catch Share Plan proposal to reduce halibut take on chartered sport fishing boats is viewed as a measure that could damage the charter sport fishing industry in Homer as well as the town’s economy as a whole. That’s a problem for the whole town to deal with, since every bait shop, kayak rental and pottery shop is tied to it, business owners told the chamber.
In the vote, 18 percent of the 470 members were asking the chamber to speak up for them about the proposed plan to reduce charter sport fishermen to one halibut instead of the two that is the current limit for all sport fishermen.
“We have before us an issue that can break us,” said Jack Montgomery, owner of Rainbow Tours for the past 30 years. “This could tear our town apart.”
The chamber board had voted against taking a stand at its Aug. 18 board meeting in a vote of 8-4. The lack of action angered members involved in the charter industry, such as Bob Morris, owner of Bob’s Trophy Charters. To bring awareness to the chamber and the public about the potential economic loss, Morris quit selling halibut derby tickets and circulated a petition signed by 38 people asking for the chamber to take a more supportive stand. In response, the chamber board was called to an emergency meeting Wednesday.
Montgomery and about 20 other business owners gave comments at that meeting. Board President Holly VanPelt called the emergency meeting, deeming it “a sensitive issue” and therefore justifying calling in the board. After hearing from members, the board (with 10 voting) initially voted against a motion that proposed three items the letter would contain: the request to extend the public comment period, an economic analysis and a catch share proposal. With the third item, the motion sank 7 to 3.
A new motion, however, dropping the “Set the Catch Sharing Plan allocation to closely approximate the Guideline Harvest Level,” point unanimously passed supporting the first two points. The Sunday vote reinserts that point.
With this approval, chamber Director Monte Davis will be authorized to write a letter on behalf of members to comment on the proposed Halibut Catch Sharing Plan and ask NMFS to extend the comment period 60 days. He will also request NMFS to prepare an Economic Impact Analysis using current data to let potential results be known before the plan is enacted.
In addition to the NMFS, the letter will be sent to Gov. Sean Parnell, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, Rep. Don Young, legislators of the State of Alaska, the Homer City Council, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Under the original discussion, those board members who cast dissenting votes, Kate Michelle, Gary Squires and Josh Tobin, said they felt this veered into fish politics and therefore wasn’t within the chamber’s neutral role.
Kate Mitchell, owner of Nomar’s Manufacturing and a past chamber president, said the 61-year-old organization’s role is to function as a forum for bringing controversial information to the whole community. Most of the public meetings on the NMFC’s plan to date have been hosted by the chamber, including the visit by NOAA’s top official Jane Lubchenco and Sen. Mark Begich, she noted. The role is not to side with any one industry.
Two members of the commercial fishing community gave testimony at the Wednesday board meeting. Chris Moss warned that fisheries issues fluctuated greatly through the years, and siding with charters over commercial fishermen sends the wrong message about an impartial group meant to support them all.
In the end, the board’s vote reflected a supportive, but neutral stand. “It wasn’t hard to support a compromise,” Mitchell said.
The fear of real economic losses if the town doesn’t band together, however, seemed to be the main point expressed by those attending the meeting.
Rex Murphy, who used to operate Winter King Charters until recently selling his halibut permit, said it only makes sense for the NMFS to extend the deadline on the comment period, since work doesn’t stop for the tourist season until Labor Day weekend. The deadline now is set at Sept. 6, a day after Labor Day.
“There is no biological reason to not extend it. Anything we leave in the water gets left for our commercial fishing friends,” Murphy said. “This will be a vote for the community, not for personal interests.”
Donna Bondioli said the Catch Share Plan was proposed on the premise that the charter fleet has outgrown the resource. But according to numbers she has collected from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 3A, there were 628 boats operating in 2006; by 2009 that number fell to 549 vessels. After the new limited entry permit system was installed this spring, another 30 percent were knocked out of the water, leaving 410 vessels in operation.
“The foundation for the CSP was that there is growth in the industry. This isn’t true; there is no reason to hurry into this CSP,” she said.
Gerri Martin, of North Country Charters which has operated since 1979, said she hopes the chamber can help stall this plan from moving forward.
“If this allocation goes through, it won’t create new jobs, it won’t generate sales tax. It will change the face of this town,” she said.
Kevin Fraley, owner of Printworks, said the matter boils down to whether the chamber intends to support its members or not. The members are asking for more time to pull together their public testimony submissions. With 70 percent of the town tied to tourism, this will impact a majority of the chamber’s membership, he said.
Since 40 percent of the chamber’s budget comes from its membership dues, director Davis said he grew more and more concerned this past week as businesses pulled their memberships.
“These are people who have given thousands of hours to volunteer for us and who have given untold sponsorships. As the manager of this organization who has to pay the light bill, I am very concerned,” Davis said. Membership is down by 50 businesses from last year. Some 35 of those were sport fishing charter businesses that closed down, Davis said. The chamber has 470 members now, each of whom pay $140 for a basic membership. The average members pay between $400-$600 per year for a package of chamber services.
Davis sympathized with members. “The chamber is up against it financially. This is going beyond the fish wars – this is a membership issue. These people are truly disheartened. They asked for one thing and they didn’t get it. So they came in, resigned their membership and pulled out their rack cards,” Davis said.
The chamber is losing money while the conflict continues, VanPelt told the board members.
In the end, each of the directors expressed solidarity with their community but disavowed their role as advocates for any particular sector. Gary Squires, manager of Kachemak Gear Shed, said no matter which way he voted, people would feel he had done the wrong thing.
“I am in a position where you (as a board) are going to make it hard on us,” he said.
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