Heath Hilyard, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, is right. The halibut catch sharing plan, or CSP, isn’t about conservation. It’s about managing the charter halibut resource responsibly so businesses can operate with more certainty. In fact, the plan was supported by the charter sector many times throughout the years for that precise reason. Why the hue and cry now? They want more fish.
Who can blame them? They were rewarded for exceeding their annual catch limit five years in a row in Southeast Alaska by being granted those extra fish as “historical catch.” Twice the plan approached a final rule and twice the charter sector derailed it, forcing the council to start over. Each time the charter sector lobbied for more fish; each time they got it. The current version of the CSP gives them the highest percentage yet. Still, it seems, they want more.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has wrestled with halibut allocation since September 1993. Initial charter allocations were 125 percent of their historical catches. Catch accounting was one step up from the honor system. In 2003, a Guideline Harvest Level, or GHL, was used which — along with burgeoning industry growth — resulted in tremendous overages in Southeast. Those overages were taken out of the commercial sector’s allocation the following year.
The charter sector helped guide the council to a catch sharing plan in 2008 by preferring an allocation that floated with abundance. But they wanted guarantees of a high minimum allocation during times of low stocks, to retain the historical season length, and no in-season closures, even once their quota has been reached. The commercial sector, by contrast, stops fishing when the quota is attained.
“The halibut catch sharing plan has been developed through the collaborative effort and hard work of many people over several years, and through a transparent and robust public input process,” said Alaskan regional administrator Dr. James Balsiger.
The council’s deliberations included applying 10 national standards required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The standards mandate consideration of more than economics, such as sustained participation of communities and other factors.
In 2009, Alaska’s seafood industry generated $4.6 billion to the state’s economy. That represents over 80,000 jobs and $1.45 billion in payments to labor and wages.
That year, Alaska’s longline fleet from Southeast to Kodiak caught $81.4 million worth of halibut. Apply the usual economic multiplier of 3.7 and the impact to coastal communities, transportation hubs like Anchorage, and backhaul revenue for air and surface transport delivering halibut to Outside and international markets, reaches $301 million.
We won’t compare the economic impact of the charter business on coastal communities except to say it’s vital. We don’t compare it because each industry has entirely different marketing triggers, metrics for success, and wildly varying options for alternative business models.
But they are alike in their natural aversion to uncertainty. Any CEO in the world will admit that topping the list of negative factors to business is uncertainty. The CSP manages uncertainty for the charter sector better than any management plan they’ve had yet.
Understanding the CSP requires careful study (for instance, see the 333-page analysis) and — most important — avoiding the BS of sound bites. As NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Dr. James Balsiger says, “We strongly encourage folks to take the time to sit down and read the actual text of the plan so they’ll have the facts before commenting.”
The council’s balanced plan serves both sectors, the state, and the resource. In the end, consumers looking for a good healthy meal and charter anglers looking for a wonderful experience will make their choices with the assurance that means coming generations will do exactly the same.
Tom Gemmell is the Executive Director of the Halibut Coalition and has lived in eight Alaska coastal and Interior communities over several decades.