Saturday, December 6, 2008

Halibut industry braces for more limits on their catch

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Halibut longliners and charter operators, particularly those in Southeast Alaska, are bracing for further cuts in catch limits when the International Pacific Halibut Commission meets Jan. 13-16 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The IPHC staff in late November recommended that the overall catch from the U.S. West Coast to the Bering Sea be trimmed from the 60.4 million pounds in 2008 to 54 million pounds in 2009.
The proposed 10 percent harvest reduction comes in the wake of a 9 percent decrease in the allowable harvest in 2008.
The biggest recommended reduction would be in regulatory area 2C, in Southeast Alaska, where the recommendation is to cut the catch limit from 6.21 million pounds to 4.47 million pounds.
In Area 3A, in Southcentral Alaska, the recommendation is to cut catch limits from 24.22 million pounds to 22.53 million pounds.
Alaska's western gulf region, area 3B, would see an increased allowable catch, up from 10.90 million pounds in 2008 to 11.67 million pounds in 2009.
Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka, said halibut longline fishermen in Southeast Alaska “were pretty well staggered” by the IPHC staff recommendations.
“We were braced for 10 to 15 percent reduction; (but) everyone will lose another 28 percent of their quota,” Behnken said. “Some people who are still making payments (on individual fishing quota shares) will probably not be able to make payments. There are limited lenders for quota share to begin with. At current quota share prices, I'm sure people will be looking for options to allow them to make payments and still hold on to their shares. Some have put out their vessels or homes as collateral.”
Behnken noted that the IPHC is still predicting that abundance levels will start turning back up, but that's not likely to happen until 2011, so this year and next year, there could be further cuts.
“Stock assessments are not publicly available yet, so we have not had the opportunity to look at the data that led to the recommendation for the 28 percent reduction,” Behnken said. “When we get the assessment, we will pour through it and no doubt have questions.”
The proposed harvest cuts also have raised concerns from subsistence and resident sport fishermen about the impact the charter fleet is having on the commercial fleet's access to the resource, said Behnken, who said the charter operators have exceeded their guideline harvest level every year for the past five years.
Kimberly Tebrugge, an Olympia, Wash.-based publicist for Southeast Alaska's charter halibut task force, said the charter fleet was disappointed in the recommendations, and expects federal fisheries officials to announce a one-fish rule for Southeast charter clients any day now.
“It's challenging, because in recreational fishing most people book a year in advance, and (now) anglers don't know how many fish they can catch on a daily basis,” she said.
As for the Southeast Alaska charter fleet exceeding its guideline harvest level five years in a row, Tebrugge said, “It was a guideline; not an allocation. Sport fishermen can't monitor how much fish a recreational fisherman can catch.”
Tebrugge also argued that, pound for pound, sport fishing has a better economic benefit to Southeast Alaska than the longline fishery.
The battle for fish between the longline sector and charter sector has been waged for years before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Both sides have argued the significant economic benefit of their industries to coastal economies.
Bob Ward, who has operated Award Charters out of Homer for more than two decades, was part of the council task force that thought they had resolved the issue several years ago, having worked out an individual fishing quota for halibut charters.
Behnken was serving on the council at the time and supported the plan. She spoke out numerous times as a council member on the importance of sharing the conservation burden to protect the halibut resource.
Then the federal Department of Commerce failed to give the plan its stamp of approval when charter operators who had entered the fishery after the fact complained they would not be included.
“I still believe the quota program will work for the charters,” Ward said.
Ward said that in 2007, charter operators in Southcentral Alaska were over their guideline harvest level by 10 percent to 13 percent. But in 2008, the harvest declined because of the number of clients carried and halibut caught.
Over the past summer there were a lot fewer recreational vehicles stopping in Homer and a lot of those that did come did not go out on charters, he said. In general, because of the economy and the price of fuel, there was less business for the area's charter fleet, he said.
Still, state Department of Fish and Game officials might slap an annual limit of six halibut on charter customers, based on statistics that showed them exceeding the guideline harvest level in 2007, Ward said.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at">

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