By Carey Restino
As the comment period for a proposal to change the way halibut is divvied up between charter operators and commercial fishermen nears to an end, a teleconference workshop with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries aimed at explaining the proposed halibut Catch Sharing Plan drew a dozen or so residents last week from the Homer area.
The teleconference, hosted at the Homer Chamber of Commerce, was a far cry from the last time NOAA officials came to town in 2011, when more than 100 frustrated halibut charter fishermen and commercial operators debated previously proposed plans. More than 4,000 public comments were received during that round of debate.
Glenn Merrill, National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region assistant administrator noted that the earlier meeting in Homer was “fairly contentious.”
While the teleconference meeting may have been calmer, the debate is no less heated, as commercial fishermen and charter operators argue over management choices with the declining stock of halibut. Commercial fishermen are allocated a certain amount of fish based on abundance, a number that has been dramatically declining in recent years, while the halibut charter fleet is allocated about 20 percent of the abundance. So far, the Southcentral Alaska halibut charter fleet has not exceeded its allocated amount of fish, unlike Southeast Alaska, where the charter fleet’s catch went over the limit significantly, causing the number and size of fish anglers could keep to be restricted. Meanwhile, fishermen on private boats are still allowed to keep two fish a day, an equation that may lead to an expansion in boat rentals, which charter operators say is not only dangerous to their business, but also to the public at large as inexperienced boaters take to Alaska’s unpredictable waters.
Under the proposed Catch Sharing Plan, however, exchange in quota between the commercial halibut fleet and the charter fleet would be allowed through a quota sharing plan. Charter operators wanting to offer their customers a chance to catch more fish could buy quota from the commercial sector and sell that opportunity to its customers. But charter operators argue that at the least, such a plan will make charter fishing too expensive for many, especially Alaska residents trying to fill their freezer with flatfish. At the worst, such a plan is questionable in its legality, some charter operators argue, constituting a sale of fish not caught commercially.
Jim Martin of the Alaska Charter Association noted that when a customer is offered the chance to keep fishing for more fish for an added cost, that constitutes the sale of fish, which is illegal. If that happened in any other fishing sector, it would be illegal, he noted.
“I would call the cops,” he said. “That’s against the law, if it happened in the salmon fishery.”
Rachel Baker, a supervisory fishery management specialist for NMFS, said the regulations do not consider the sale of guided angler fish the sale of sport-caught fish.
“It does not change anything,” she said. “It’s still prohibited for the angler to sell that fish.”
Many at the meeting left with more questions than answers as NOAA officials offered little clarity into how much such share transfers were expected to cost and how much expense the program might cost to administer.
Commercial fisherman Pat McBride testified that the commercial fleet is looking for equality between the sectors when it comes to managing the resource as a whole. Between 2008 and 2012, the halibut commercial fleet took a reduction of 45 percent he said, while the charter sector’s take was reduced between 15 and 18 percent.
“We are looking for some fairness between the charter and commercial sectors,” he said, adding that he would like to see the charter fleet help pay for the regulatory cost of enforcement of halibut rules.
Some at the meeting also wanted to know how the proposed changes were being publicized by the fisheries service, since anglers, not charter operators, stood to lose the most through the changes.
Julie Speegle, NOAA’s Alaska spokesperson, said she has facilitated interviews between the media and fisheries specialists. In addition, officials said the proof that word was getting out among anglers was the thousands of comments that have come in so far.
“We certainly have been hearing from a wide variety of people,” Merrill said.
The public comment period remains open through Monday.
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
Fax: (907) 586-7557
A copy of the proposed halibut catch sharing plan is available online at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region website: alaskafisheries.noaa.gov.
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