Tighter restrictions for charter halibut likely in 2019
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved preliminary regulations for the halibut charter sector in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska during its recent meeting in Anchorage, but the final rules still depend on what the International Pacific Halibut Commission decides about quotas.
The council members approved measures to outline fishing time and retention in regulatory areas 2C and 3A, depending on the final limits determined by the International Pacific Halibut Commission this January. In area 2C, which encompasses Southeast Alaska, the proposed limit is a reverse slot limit of one fish per day either shorter than 38 inches or longer than 80 inches.
In area 3A, which encompasses the Central Gulf of Alaska between Yakutat and the Alaska Peninsula, the restrictions will be a little looser than in Southeast. Charter anglers are allowed to keep two fish per day with a four-fish annual limit, with one fish capped at a maximum of 28 inches long. Additionally, there won’t be any fish retention on Wednesdays.
While the Southeast charter sector was about 10 percent less than its allocation limit in 2018, the Central Gulf charter sector exceeded its limits, running about 4 percent over its allocation. Some of the restrictions proposed by the council are meant to help bring that sector back in line, such as closing additional Tuesdays.
In an analysis provided to the council, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game outlined how halibut harvest would drop with each additional closed Tuesday — at the high end, if all Tuesdays were closed, it would drop about 8.2 percent. At status quo, charter operators would lose about six Tuesdays through the season, plus Wednesdays being entirely closed.
However, even if management and effort stay status quo, total catch may still drop because all areas are showing a decline in harvest per unit of effort, or HPUE, according to the ADFG analysis.
“The weighted average HPUE forecast for Area 3A overall is 1.18 halibut per angler-trip,” the analysis states. “Glacier Bay, Yakutat, North Gulf Coast, and Kodiak subareas had HPUEs of less than 1 halibut per angler-trip, reflecting the lower retention of second fish in the bag limit in those areas.”
Due to falling halibut abundance in the Gulf of Alaska and near Southeast, the council has been adding more regulations and cutting allocations in an attempt to protect the stocks. This year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s stock status report showed yet another drop in biomass — 7 percent in the Gulf of Alaska and 15 percent in the Southeast area.
The commission will meet in January to discuss final quota setting, but with decreasing biomass, fishermen may see yet another cut across both the charter and commercial sectors.
Under the reference catch levels for 2019, all Tuesdays could be opened and there wouldn’t be a need for any other closed days, according to the analysis.
The council’s Charter Halibut Management Committee supported the regulations the council ultimately adopted, noting that if the IPHC’s allocation came in ultimately greater than 2.023 million pounds, the managers could increase the lower end of the over-under limit to 30 inches from 28 inches.
The committee also urged the members to opt for a more conservative management regime for area 3A than is technically necessary. The committee noted in its minutes that its members also recommended more conservative regulations for the area in 2018, which the council members did not ultimately approve.
Many of those who submitted comments noted that while they didn’t love the additional restrictions, they understood the necessity for conservation. Multiple commenters touched on a frustration that the council has yet to address: the lack of comparable restrictions on private angler and subsistence halibut harvest.
Matt Kopec, owner of Whittier Marine Charters and Whittier Boat Rentals and serves on the Charter Halibut Management Committee, noted that his area has seen a significant increase in private boat traffic.
“From what I have seen, private boaters are far more successful in harvesting halibut than rental boat customers,” he wrote in a letter to the council. “They fish much more and they’ve simply gotten good at it. While I’m still not sure that current data suggests that any restriction is needed, they should be considered before stricter regulations are placed on guided anglers, especially if you’re looking at limiting the catch of anglers on rental boats. Perhaps a new ‘sport’ allocation for all sport anglers that is linked to abundance would be a clean and simple answer.”
Noting those concerns from users, the council has discussed actions to regulate the halibut boat rental business, in which businesses rent boats to private anglers without a guide so they are not subject to the charter sector restrictions. A private angler may keep two fish of any size per day.
The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles already requires registration of motor boats, so the council members have debated whether to add more regulations to keep a closer watch on the sector, including aligning the bag limits on both.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].