Halibut lobby working overtime
By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
Commercial fishermen and charter operators who target halibut in Alaska have been lobbying federal decision-makers heavily since a U.S.-Canada commission recommended to reduce charter anglers' bag limits for halibut during portions of 2007 in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
The final say regarding the International Pacific Halibut Commission's Jan. 19 recommendation rests with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, with the concurrence of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.
The IPHC — which cited charter halibut catches that have exceeded guideline harvest levels in recent years — is recommending cutting charter bag limits from two halibut to one halibut between June 15 and July 31 in Southeast Alaska, and from June 15 to June 30 in Southcentral Alaska.
Commercial halibut fishermen support the recommendation and are urging its approval.
Without the IPHC recommendation, they say, efforts to curb charter catches through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process aren't likely to produce regulations until the 2008 season at the earliest.
Commercial fishermen's groups say the commission acted within its authority and has a responsibility to reduce charter catches now.
"IPHC was the only agency able to put in place effective management measures to slow the charter harvests for the 2007 season," wrote Kathy Hansen, executive director of the commercial-fishery oriented Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, in a Jan. 26 letter to Rice.
But charter operators say the IPHC exceeded its authority by getting into allocation issues. They say the recommendation is unfair, discriminates against charter anglers, and will damage local economies.
"The proposal, if adopted, will have devastating effects on charter fishing businesses in Alaska and the local communities that depend on them," wrote William P. Horn, an attorney representing the Alaska Sportfishing Alliance, in a Feb. 1 letter to Gutierrez.
A decision is expected soon. The International Pacific Halibut Commission expects to forward its formal recommendations — which also include the proposed commercial fishery quotas for 2007 — to the departments of State and Commerce in the next week or so. It's anticipated that Rice will take action before the proposed March 10 start date of the commercial fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Portland, Ore., this week. The charter halibut issues are on the council's agenda Wednesday, but council Executive Director Chris Oliver wasn't expecting the council to take action to restrict charter catches in 2007.
The council is on a path toward regulatory changes for the 2008 season, Oliver said last week.
"I don't think the (IPHC) action necessarily changes our course of action," he said.
The IPHC recommendation represents the latest flash point in a lengthening squabble over halibut allocation in Alaska, with commercial fishermen concerned that growing charter catches are taking fish away from commercial quotas.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has devoted much time to the halibut charter issue in recent years.
In general, there's a division of labor in managing halibut stocks and harvests along the U.S. west coast.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which was established in 1923 by the U.S. and Canadian governments, is charged with the research and management of halibut stocks in U.S. and Canadian waters. Every year, its recommendations regarding total allowable catches and fishing seasons are sent to the respective governments for consideration and approval.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight councils established by the U.S. federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act, focuses only specific fisheries within U.S. waters off the Alaska coast. For halibut, the council is responsible for allocation and limited entry decisions.
In 2000, the council set fixed guideline harvest levels for charter halibut catches in Areas 2C (Southeast Alaska) and 3A (Southcentral). The charter guideline harvest levels — which are non-binding — are set at 1.432 million pounds in Area 2C; and 3.65 million pounds in Area 3A.
Charter catches in Area 2C stayed below the GHL until 2004, when the catch of 1.75 million pounds was 22 percent over the guideline. In 2006, the catch was estimated at 2.113 million pounds, about 47 percent over the guideline harvest level.
Up in Area 3A, the charter catch was 1 percent over the GHL in 2004, and about 9 percent above it in 2006.
Commercial catches "float" up and down, based mostly on the commission's estimates of the halibut stock' health for that particular year. The commercial sector quotas are "hard" caps — the commercial fisheries are mananged to not exceed the annual total allowable catch.
The commercial catch limits in Area 2C between 2000 and 2005 ranged between 8.4 million pounds and 10.93 million pounds. In 2006, the commercial quota was 10.63 million pounds.
Commercial fishing groups note that overages in the charter catch in one year are deducted from the next year's overall harvestable catch, which costs the commercial sector "millions of dollars in ex-vessel value," according to the Halibut Coalition, a groups of commercial fishermen.
"When they go over their GHL, it's maybe not exactly a one-to-one ratio, but there's a direct correlation in the following year that the commercial catch is reduced by," said Hansen.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been working on a range of proposals to slow the charter catch, including reduced bag limits, capping charter vessels to one trip per day and trophy-size catch requirements, among others. The apparent earliest time that these regulations could take effect is 2008.
The council also is studying the establishment of a limited-entry system for charter operators, an issue that has sharply divided the charter fleets in the past.
Given that 2008 is likely the earliest time that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council could deliver regulations to slow the charter catch, the International Pacific Halibut Commission process began considering its own options.
"The lack of adherence to the recreational catch limits set by the two governments in Areas 2B, 2C, and 3A in turn compromises adherence to catch limits established by the Commission and accepted by the two governments," stated the commission's 2007 "Blue Book" report. "Absent action from the two governments to restrain recreational catch within these limits, the commission must act to restrain removals within its adopted catch limits."
Commission staff recommended the charter bag limit reductions. (The Halibut Coalition submitted a late proposal in November to the commission seeking cuts in the charter bag limits. Commission Executive Director Bruce Leaman said commission staff were already studying the issue before the Halibut Coalition proposal arrived.)
When the commission met in January, it approved the above-mentioned bag limits, in addition to lowering the commercial quota in Area 2C to 8.51 million pounds, based largely on stock assessment issues.
Leaman said the commission members made the decision to reduce the bag limits "very reluctantly." The issues cited were the "magnitude of the charter overages and "the belief that such overharvesting puts at risk the achievement of IPHC management goals for the halibut stock."
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council already had made the allocation decision when it set the guideline harvest levels, but it hadn't developed the mechanisms for complying with the GHLs, said Leaman. The International Pacific Halibut Commission's action was taken in regard to the compliance issue, he said.
The charter fleets immediately viewed the commission's decision as an allocative issue.
Horn's letter on behalf of the Alaska Sportfishing Alliance cites international convention and U.S. law as placing allocations decision squarely in the realm of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
"The IPHC's proposal here, however, is a blatant attempt to affect allocation issues, and in doing so, subvert public involvement," Horn wrote. "The IPHC's recommendation is beyond its authority and should not be sustained by the U.S. agencies."
Donna Bondioli, executive administrator of the Homer-based Alaska Charter Association, said one of her group's concerns was that the commercial allowable catch for Area 3A was raised by 1 million pounds while the charter bag limits were being imposed in the same area.
"The decision by the IPHC was not a biological concern, it was strictly an allocation," Bondioli said.
Hansen, who owns individual quota shares for the commercial halibut fishery in Area 2C, noted that the commercial harvest quota in Southeast Alaska dropped by about 2 million pounds for 2007.
"So it's not as if the commercial fleet is getting more fish out of this scenario," Hansen said. "Everybody is losing something."
Commercial groups also counter that the International Pacific Halibut Commission has the authority to set and modify bag limits. The Halibut Coalition notes that the current recreational bag limits were set by the commission in 1975.
While the debate over whether the commission has the authority to set charter bag limits continues, Sen. Ted Stevens has issued a statement about his "concerns" regarding the commission's decision.
"The International Pacific Halibut Commission does not have the same level of public comment and analysis as our North Pacific Fishery Management Council," Stevens said. "I do understand that we have to be careful about maintaining a healthy halibut population but this should be done through an open process."
Stevens said he supports further analysis of the halibut harvest and input from the commercial and recreational sectors.
"This ruling can have an enormous impact on the economy and cannot be dealt with by an arbitrary decision," Stevens said.
The fear of economic disruption figures largely in the charter and travel industries' reaction to the commission recommendation.
In a Feb. 2 letter to Rice, Alaska Travel Industry Association President Ron Peck wrote that the IPHC actions raise concern about the future economic viability of charter halibut fisheries in the state.
"And today, ATIA seeks your assistance in avoiding an economic catastrophe in small coastal communities based on IPHC actions," Peck wrote.
In Ketchikan, Darrell Welk of Alaskan Fishing Adventures said he's heard from a Juneau-based charter operator who's already lost $12,000 in bookings.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of thought going into this, about what this could do to the local economies," Welk said.
The six-week bag limit reduction in Southeast Alaska runs right through the prime of the charter season, according Welk and other charter representatives, who are quick to add that reducing the bag limits for charter/guided anglers discriminates against sport anglers who don't have their own boats.
Both sides use further information — including the relative value of charter and commercial-caught fish and the number of Alaska participants involved with the each industry — to bolster their arguments in the debate that's similar in some ways to the long-running king salmon allocation fights in Southeast Alaska.
As the commission's Leaman observed, "This is obviously a very emotional issue for lot of people."
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Halibut lobby working overtime