Saturday, January 27, 2007

Halibut quotas create praise, concern from fishers

Web posted Sunday, January 28, 2007

Halibut quotas create praise, concern from fishers
By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce

A mid-January decision by the International Pacific Halibut Commission to limit customers of halibut charters to one fish per day for a limited period of peak weeks is drawing praise from commercial fishermen and strong criticism from charter operators.

The controversy centers on the IPHC decision to put a one halibut per day limit on customers of charter boat operators from June 15 to June 30 in Southcentral Alaska and from June 15 to the end of July in Southeast Alaska. The halibut season runs from March 10 to Nov. 15 in Alaska.

Charter operators fear some clients will cancel their trips because of the one halibut limit, but commercial representatives are happy with the move.

“They did everything right,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka, noting that the IPHC action also included a reduction in the commercial harvest in Southeast.

“We down here supported a reduction in harvest for conservation reasons and the commission adopted that recommendation,” Behnken said. The continued reduction in the allowable commercial harvest won't have an overall effect on prices, although there will be a cost to the industry, “but people were willing to take that reduction for sustainability.”

Behnken said the sport harvest taken by customers of Southeast charter operators was 46 percent over its allocation in 2006, while the commercial catch has been under its allocation for a decade. “If we go over (the limit) we pay huge penalties and it is taken out of our quota for the following year,” she said. “For the last three years in Southeast the guided sport has gone over its guideline harvest level.”

Behnken voted for the halibut charter individual fishing quotas in 2001, when she was a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. When the council voted in December 2005 to move IFQs for halibut charter boats back to square one, Behnken called it “a giant step into the past. They're afraid to make hard decisions to maintain the health of the resource and the health of the industry,” she said.

Veteran charter operators, whose businesses will be affected by a one-halibut limit for a finite but critical part of their season, were equally frustrated with the council process.

Bob Ward, secretary of the Homer Charter Association, worked with the council to resolve issues on the allowable harvest for charter vessel patrons and the right of charter vessel operators to purchase IFQ.

The IPHC “has given us a pretty severe blow,” he said. “For 13 years, we fought to prevent this kind of measure having to be taken. This is a major slap in the face. We thought the council was listening to us the past 13 years while we have tried to educate them on certain things about industry needs and certain things that will hurt our industry beyond repair.” Ward and Larry McQuarrie, a veteran charter operator and owner of the Sportsman's Cove Lodge in Ketchikan, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional director of NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service, in Juneau.

Balsiger “allowed his office to take four years to do his jobÉ and more people came in,” said Ward.

“If the council had done its job, and NMFS had done its job it would never have come to this,” McQuarrie said. “The council's scientific and statistical committee said that the available data was good enough to build a charter IFQ system on. There were strings being pulled that didn't want the IFQ to go forward, so when it finally did get out of NMFS it didn't go forward.”

Balsiger said he wasn't defending the four years his agency took to work on the issue of halibut taken by the charter industry.

“It took too long,” Balsiger said. “An easy rule at the council takes 18 months to two years. We (at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council level) do almost nothing in 18 months. I'm not trying to make an excuse. I think four years is too long, but the halibut charter IFQ required a lot of work to meet legal and enforceability problems.”

In what many in the charter halibut industry, and commercial fisheries, considered a huge blow, the North Pacific Council in December 2005 essentially sent the whole issue of IFQs for halibut charter boasts back to the drawing table. Arne Fuglvog, a Petersburg fisherman then serving on the council, and now an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said at the time he remained convinced that charter boat IFQs, based on the owner's history in the fishery, were the best solution for the charter sector. A major problem was that from the time the NPFMC began debating the issue and reached a vote, numerous new charter owners entered the fishery.

“It's a mess, in that the entire hook and line halibut fishery in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, both commercial and charter, are destabilized by the current management system, which is the guideline harvest level established at the NPFMC because the GHL (guideline harvest level) places a cap on the charter fishery harvest without any other limitations,” McQuarrie said. “So in effect we have a limited number of fish and an unlimited number of charter boats. Whether we like to hear it or not from the charter sector, that is the destabilizing influence in both fisheries.”

McQuarrie said he favors a moratorium on charter vessels. “The charter industry needs to get its own house in order. We need to get control of our own industry and the first step is a short-term moratorium on entrance into the fishery, followed as soon as possible by a permanent solution and in my opinion it should be an IFQ-like solution that merges with the commercial IFQ so there is an orderly and compensated shift allocated,” he said.

“That in a nutshell is the issue, and, of course, from our position, we would like to see the council process work.”

McQuarrie said a moratorium on new charters in the fleet is the short-term solution, with a long-term solution of an IFQ-style system for charters to merge with the commercial IFQ system.

Forcing charter operators to limit their customers to one halibut a day during periods when there are few if any other options for fish is likely to lead to highgrading, he said. There will be more fish being released, as customers hope to catch a larger halibut, “and whenever you release fish there is some mortality,” he said.

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