Friday, March 30, 2007

Council talks charter cap

Council talks charter cap
March 28, 2007
Meeting for the first time since the International Pacific Halibut Commission voted to cut the Homer area’s charter halibut bag limit to one fish a day for half of June, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will discuss how to manage the growing halibut charter fleet this week.
Charter operators say while they are pleased that the federal government did not accept and implement the proposal to cut the number of fish charter fishermen can bring home this summer, concerns about what the North Council will do instead continue to haunt the charter industry.
Commercial fishermen, however, counter that the growth of the charter fleet take has come out of their pockets, since the charter fleet has exceeded its harvest limits.
Homer’s charter fleet, one of the largest in the state, has been under the eye of the North Council for years as commercial fishermen have lobbied for some method of enforcing limits on the charter industry’s catch. A guideline harvest limit was put in place years ago, but the 3A fleet exceeded that harvest limit by 8.5 percent last year, and as yet, there are few methods in place for controlling the charter fleet’s take.
Earlier this winter, the Halibut Commission took the unusual move of imposing a one-fish bag limit for half of June in area 3A, and longer in Southeast Alaska, where the guideline harvest limit was exceeded by some 40 percent last year.
The Secretary of Commerce, however, did not approve the bag limit reduction.
Now the issue is volleyed back to the North Council, though given its lengthy public process for implementing regulations in the fishing industry, it would likely be several years from the date a decision was made before restrictions made it on the books.
The state of Alaska, which has little say in halibut regulation given that it is a federally managed fish, has restricted the number of fish captain and crew can take in both Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.
In addition, a laundry list of possible restrictions are at the council’s disposal, including the recently rejected one-fish-a-day limit. The council could also restrict the charter season, or the days in the week a charter could fish. An Individual Fish Quota Share program is still on the table, though a previous plan to get the charter fleet to join the IFQ program was rejected just prior to becoming law after a decade-long review process.
The North Council is likely to vote this week on a proposed moratorium on new charter boats until a decision is made. The moratorium, as it is currently written, would allow only those boats that were operating as of Dec. 9, 2005.
While charter fleet operators haven’t expressed much opposition to the moratorium, they have fought any restrictions on the charter industry that aren’t based on the total number of fish allowable for catch in any given year. While the commercial fleet’s allowable take rises and falls with the number of fish available for catch, the charter’s fleet’s allowable catch is capped. It can decrease if halibut stocks fall, but it can’t rise. This year, for example, the area 3A stocks expanded significantly, and the charter fleet’s allowable catch rose as a result. The charter fleet’s did not, and operators argue that if their allowable catch rose and fell with abundance at the same level the commercial sector’s did, the fleet would not have exceeded its limits in recent years.
The North Council is expected to take up the halibut charter issue on Thursday.

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