• The Homer Chamber members ask for a letter requesting an extension on NMFC’s one-halibut plan testimony deadline
By Naomi Klouda
Business members of the Homer Chamber of Commerce voted Sunday night overwhelmingly in favor of a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service that asks for a look at how halibut are allocated.
The vote of 78-6 was a nod to add a third point to strengthen the letter a majority of members want that addresses setting the CSP allocation to closely approximate the Guideline Harvest Level for Area 3A, which includes Homer.
The Catch Share Plan proposal to reduce halibut take on chartered sport fishing boats is viewed as a measure that could launch a mortar at the charter sport fishing industry in Homer. That’s a problem for the whole town to deal with, since every bait shop, kayak rental and pottery shop is tied to it, businesses told the chamber.
Members were asking the chamber to speak up for them about the proposed National Marine Fisheries Council 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. All we are asking for is the chamber to write a letter asking for an extension.”
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 an emergency meeting on the matter, deemed “a sensitive issue” and therefore justifying calling in the board. After hearing from members, the 12-member board (with 10 voting) initially voted against a motion that proposed three items the letter would contain: the extension request, an economic analysis and a catch share proposal. With the third item, the motion sank 7 to 3.
A new motion, however, unanimously passed supporting the first two out of three items of concern.
With this approval, Executive 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.
The point not passed was: “Set the Catch Sharing Plan allocation to closely approximate the Guideline Harvest Level.” Those 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.
Because the original request by the members included all three points, the Chamber is holding a general meeting 7 p.m. Sunday at at Land’s End. At the meeting, the members may comment on and bring to a vote or not, the third item. Ten percent of the membership must attend to have a quorum and conduct business. Members are asked to contact the Membership Services Manager, Alida Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org or 235-7740 to let her know if you plan to attend. All voters must be members of the chamber. If you have recently withdrawn your membership, there is still time for you to be reinstated.
At the Wednesday meeting, the board also voted unanimously for the executive director to submit comments on the Catch Share plan made at the Chamber-sponsored informational meetings held Friday, Aug. 12 at Land’s End Resort and Aug. 23 at Bidarka Best Western Inn, to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Gov. Sean Parnell, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, Rep. Don Young, Legislators of the State of Alaska, Homer City Council and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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.
In the end, the board’s vote reflected a supportive, but neutral stand. “It wasn’t hard to support a compromise,” she 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 again 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 sportfishing 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.
Some businesses are no longer selling halibut derby tickets, which hurts revenue further. Bob’s Trophy Charters’ owner Bob Morris said he made his own move to make a point. “I didn’t throw in my cards and say, ‘I quit’ because I wanted to give up on it all. I saw this as affecting everyone and I wanted to bring more awareness to this. I hope there is a good turnout on Sunday night and that everyone submits letters, not only to NMFS but to the governor, the legislators.”
In area 2C, where the charter fleet is limited to one halibut, figures show only one-third of the Guideline Harvest Level was caught in the month of June, leaving the other two thirds uncaught, Morris said.
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 board of directors expressed solidarity with their community but disavowed their role as advocates for any particular sector. Gary Squires, owner 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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