The federal catch-share plan that would cut the allowable catch of Southcentral halibut charter clients to one halibut per day, impose size restrictions and allow charter operators to “buy” more fish from commercial fishermen should not become law. Public comment ends Wednesday on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposal to limit the charter catch. We hope NOAA is getting enough sound advice to put this plan on the shelf and find another way to sustain halibut stocks.
• The charter business in Southcentral already was cut by 30 percent last year with a limited entry scheme. The effect of this one-third cut in the charter fleet on its catch is unknown.
• The Southcentral charter fleet has not exceeded federal guidelines for its share of the catch. That has happened in Southeast, which has been living with the one-halibut limit since 2009.
• The feds acknowledge they have not considered the economic effects of charter limits on Southcentral’s coastal communities, especially on the Kenai Peninsula. Their mission, they argue, is to maintain a healthy, sustainable halibut fishery.
Understood. But economic impacts can’t be ignored in making such decisions. Towns like Seward and Homer have a huge stake in the charter business.
• This plan is recommended by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, heavily inclined to commercial interests. Charter captains have reason to be skeptical of the source and of the fast-tracking for this plan.
• There’s a real issue here about use of a public resource. Some federal officials — and commercial fishermen — argue that the Individual Fishing Quotas essentially allocate the fish mostly to commercial harvest and that issues of state law or the Alaska Constitution are irrelevant.
Legal questions aside, does it make sense to apportion such a huge share of a common resource to the few, rather than the many?
• Finally, there’s the fact that industrial fishing fleets take a huge halibut bycatch. That bycatch is a far more likely suspect as a cause for declining stocks than the charter fleet’s take. Just because it’s easier to regulate the charter fleet than the industrial users doesn’t make it right.
In short, the feds haven’t made the case to cut the charter catch in half.
Clearly, sustainability of the fishery is the first priority and NOAA has the right priority there. But how managers go about sustaining the fishery makes a big difference to thousands of Alaska livelihoods.
It is not clear that this catch-share plan will do much for the halibut stocks. It is clear that tourism, the sport fishing economy and the opportunity for Alaskans to catch halibut out of Seward or Homer will suffer.
If there were just one chicken halibut left in the sea, Alaskans would fight over it — and that’s not even counting our seasonal visitors from the Northwest. At heart, however, Alaskans know all users must sometimes sacrifice to keep a fishery strong.
But if there’s a halibut problem, this catch-share plan isn’t the solution.
This editorial was reprinted with permission from the Anchorage Daily News, where it ran on Monday.
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