By Carey Restino
The controversy over how to divide halibut resources between charter operators and commercial entities continues this week as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened the public comment period for its reworked catch-sharing plan for commercial and guided sport.
The program, which was first proposed in 2011 but reworked by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council last year, establishes a clear allocation between commercial and charter sectors in Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf regions. Among its features is a more responsive system for generating harvest limits as well as a program that would allow commercial halibut IFQ holders to lease quota shares to the charter industry so they could allow their clients to retain more fish.
But some in the charter fishing industry say the catch sharing plan is far from a step forward. Rex Murphy, who is associated with the Alaska Charter Association, said the plan could result in a significant reduction in the amount of fish allocated to the charter sector — as much as 30 to 40 percent depending on how the fish stocks shape up in coming years. And being able to lease quota shares from the commercial sector will mean the cost of going charter boat fishing will go up.
“There is nothing in this plan about conservation of the resource,” Murphy said. “All the fish that are being taken away from the guided sector are being reallocated to the commercial sector. No more fish will be left in the water.”
Murphy said the management of halibut in Alaska has long been stacked toward the commercial sector. This plan is no different, he said.
“Not only does this reallocate 30 to 40 percent more fish to the commercial sector, it allows us to graciously rent those fish back,” he said. “It’s a resource grab.”
Halibut charter industry management long in flux
A longtime abundant halibut population in Alaska held management issues of the resource at bay for much of the past 20 years, but when stocks began to decline in the last decade, commercial fishermen, who were concerned with the halibut charter industry take, began to ask for more oversight. While commercial halibut fishermen holding quota were able to catch fewer and fewer fish, the charter industry take remained stable in most areas, increasing the industry’s percentage of overall catch.
In Southeast Alaska, the charter fleet was handed significant restrictions in recent years, from a reduction in the daily per-person bag limit — halibut charter boat fishermen are only allowed to keep one fish — to a limit in the size of the fish they are allowed to keep.
Those restrictions brought the fishing industry back into compliance with its total allowable catch limits, but with stock levels uncertain, many worry the restrictions will have negative consequences. Private halibut fishermen are still allowed to keep two fish per day, so some in the charter industry said it unfairly puts the fleet at a disadvantage. It may also lead to an increase in private boat rentals and fishermen choosing to go out on friends’ boats instead of going out with a licensed charter operator, something that could lead to more accidents, Murphy noted.
In the Homer area, however, the charter industry has largely been untouched by the charter fleet restrictions seen in Southeast Alaska. The only new limitation placed on the industry was to discontinue allowing deckhands and captains on the vessels to keep fish.
But with the proposed system, that could change. The guideline harvest level currently used manages the fish allocation on a stairstep-like basis. When fish stocks drop below a certain number, the harvest level drops a set amount. Under the new system, the fish allocation would rise and fall with abundance, managers say. But Murphy said the equation used doesn’t match the current allocation. Under the proposed plan, the Homer charter fleet could face restrictions in future years because of exceeding its harvest limit, assuming the stocks remain more or less the same.
Fish quota transfer proposed
One feature of the catch share plan is the capacity for commercial halibut quota to be leased to charter operators through an application process. Rachel Baker, fisheries management specialist with NOAA said the system would allow the quota to be leased for a season at a time, and charter operators would be allocated a certain number of fish above and beyond the per-person charter fleet limits. Charter fishermen could then choose to buy an “extra” fish, for example, and that fish would not be subject to the same size restrictions as the charter fleet might be restricted to, Baker said. The first year, the number of fish equivalent to a certain number of pounds of quota would be set by the average weight of halibut from the year previous overall. The following year, the average weight would be set by the fish harvested through the quota sharing plan alone.
But Murphy said the catch share plan will only increase the cost to guided aglers because the charter operators will incur extra costs having to pay to lease quota from the commercial sector.
“A lot of guided aglers who don’t have a lot of money come down once a year to fish and fill their freezer,” he said. “They are not going to be able to afford it. I think there’s a problem there.”
Proposed rule comment period open till Aug. 12
When the catch share plan last came up for public comment in 2011, NOAA received thousands of public comments. Several issues were identified that needed to be examined, the agency said, including the potential economic impact of cuts to the halibut quota for the charter fishery.
This time around, NOAA said it has worked through several of the more major issues identified back in 2011.
“I think there were enough issues raised in the public comments on the proposed rule that the agency felt like it needed a bit more input from the council before going forward,” said Baker.
The public comment period is open until Aug. 12, though the charter sector said they will ask for an extension of that period to 90 days to allow charter fleet operators, who are currently in the middle of the busiest time of the season, to comment.
Address comments to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian, and identified by FDMS Docket Number NOAA-NMFS-2011-0180. Comments may be submitted by any of the following methods:
Electronic Submission: via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov
Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668
A copy of the proposed halibut catch sharing plan is available online at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region website: http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/
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