NMFS asks for more input on halibut plan


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National Marine Fisheries Service is asking for more input from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council before it publishes the final rule governing the halibut catch sharing plan.

In a major development out of the council meeting in Dutch Harbor as it convened Sept. 28, the NMFS request makes it unlikely the plan will be implemented in 2012.

NMFS said issues that need more input from the council include: evaluation of the management implications at lower levels of abundance, economic impacts of the CSP under all levels of potential combined catch levels, and methods for calculating the average weight for guided angler fish that may be leased from commercial fishermen and the means for tracking and reporting those fish.

“If they are going to postpone CSP past 2012, we’re pleased because while we’ve always maintained we can fish successfully under a catch share plan of sorts, we cannot fish under the catch share plan as proposed,” said Southeast Alaska Guide Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard.

“Although some of these issues could be resolved by NOAA Fisheries, others raise important policy and implementation questions that are best addressed by the council,” stated a one-page handout to the council provided by an Alaska region administrator Jim Balsiger.

NMFS “strongly” encouraged the council to add an agenda item for its December meeting in Anchorage or to schedule a special meeting to provide guidance to the International Pacific Halibut Commission on the specific allocation and management measures appropriate for the charter halibut sectors.

The IPHC sets the harvest quota for the U.S. and Canada at its annual meeting each January (the 2012 meeting will be Jan. 24 to Jan. 27 in Anchorage). It also has independent authority under a treaty signed in 1923 to set management measures that will hold sectors within their allocation.

In 2011, because the halibut plan was not yet in place, the IPHC set a 37-inch size limit on charter anglers in Southeast.

The NMFS action is a huge victory for the charter fleets and a double whammy for commercial halibut fishermen, who were blindsided by comments filed by the state of Alaska at the Sept. 21 deadline asking for further council review before implementing the plan in the central Gulf of Alaska.

The state described the situation in Southeast (area 2C) as in need of “immediate” attention to conserve the halibut stock and supported implementation of the plan.

In the central Gulf (area 3A), however, where some 40 percent of charter anglers fishing out of Homer and Seward are Alaska residents, the state said the North Pacific council should review information not available in 2008 when the plan was passed.

Specifically, the state cited changes in the harvest projections from the IPHC that were much more optimistic in 2008, a subsequent shift in distribution of quota based on a change from an area model to a coastwide model, and a greater understanding of declining growth rates of halibut.

Linda Behnken, executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said the comments submitted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner David Bedford on behalf of Gov. Sean Parnell are, “completely subjugating resource conservation to politics.”

“We’re extremely disappointed,” Behnken said of the state comments. “This whole catch sharing plan, the management matrix, the whole set up of it to allow charter a season of historic length and stability in management measures, was all designed by the state. The state has supported it since 2008 when it was approved.”

NMFS published the draft halibut catch sharing plan rule July 22 based on a plan passed by the council in October 2008 to split the harvest as a percentage among commercial and charter sectors, set default bag limits based on abundance and provide for charter operators to lease pounds from commercial fishermen.

A firestorm of controversy has ensued as charter operators cried foul over the possibility of their allocation being cut by as much as 31 percent were it in place in 2011, and, in the central Gulf, of being reduced from a two-fish to a one-fish bag limit based on declining amounts of halibut larger than the legal commercial size of 32 inches.

Commercial fishermen have countered that argument by pointing to their own cuts in quota since 2005 that have been much more severe. Southeast, or Area 2C, has been cut by 79 percent in the last six years and the central Gulf, or 3A, has been cut by 43 percent.

The declining amounts of legal-sized halibut in 2C has led to a charter guideline harvest level, or GHL, reduction from 1.4 million pounds to 788,000 pounds over the past four years.

As its GHL has been reduced, however, the Southeast charter fleet exceeded its allocation every year between 2004 and 2010 by a cumulative 3.77 million pounds.

The commercial quota in 2C this year was just 2.33 million pounds, and the 37-inch size limit imposed on the charter fleet by the IPHC may hold that sector to some half-million pounds under their allocation in 2011.

The 3A charter harvest GHL of 3.65 million pounds per year has not changed since 2004. Although the charter sector in 3A has only exceeded its allocation once, in 2007, the commercial sector believes it should bear part of the cost from harvest quota cuts.

“What I understand the state is saying, is the charter fleet in 3A shouldn’t be sharing that conservation burden, and they don’t think there’s an immediate problem in the GHL program,” Behnken said.

Alaska Charter Association President Greg Sutter of Homer said his sector would support a reduction in GHL should it be triggered by the halibut survey data, but that the catch sharing plan as proposed is not a conservation measure because, they contend, it is a reallocation of quota from charter to commercial fleets.

“It won’t save the fish, but it does have the potential to kill a lot of jobs,” he said. “That’s what we’re most concerned about. We don’t want to see bigger cuts coming down the line.”

Both the state and NMFS noted a need for deeper economic analysis based on potential impacts on the charter sector and related tourism businesses.

“It’s encouraging the state is taking a closer look at it, and we’re hoping the feds take a closer look at it, too,” Sutter said. “One of the biggest issues is the fact there was no comprehensive social-economic study done.”

The charter sector — and the comments from the State of Alaska — also suggest that the North Pacific council did not foresee a one-fish bag limit for 3A when it approved the plan.

Anticipating such an argument, Behnken included transcribed quotes from the October 2008 council meeting in comments from Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association that show the potential for a one-fish bag limit was considered at length and abundance tiers were amended to reduce the possibility while not eliminating it.

“It shouldn’t have been unexpected, it shouldn’t have been anything the council didn’t perceive could happen in the future,” Behnken said. “It’s happened in the past. We’ve seen halibut stocks cyclically go up, go down, go back up. As long as you take care of the resource, it will go back up. We’ve been there before. The council talked about it on the record. They talked about a one-fish limit. They tweaked the tiers to reflect what they thought was consistent with their objectives to share the burden of conservation between charter and commercial.”

How that burden will be shared in 2012 is now anybody’s guess, but delaying the plan will delegate wider latitude to the IPHC in determining how to manage the charter sector.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.

 

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