Final action scheduled for charter-commercial halibut split

Courtesy IPHC/Tracee Geernaert

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider several alternatives for Pacific halibut allocations at its October meeting.

The council meets Oct. 3 to 9 in Anchorage, and has scheduled two full days for halibut issues. The council is slated to take final action on the halibut catch sharing plan for Southeast, or Area 2C, and Southcentral, or Area 3A. The council is tasked with finding a way to split a combined catch limit, set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, between commercial and charter fishermen.

The council must decide between four potential regulatory amendments that would create a catch sharing plan, or CSP, with sector allocations dependent on halibut abundance.

Each alternative before the council would allocate a certain percentage of the halibut harvest to the charter sector. In Area 2C, the charter sector could receive between 15.1 and 21.8 percent of the catch.

For Area 3A, the allocation could range from 14 percent to 20.7 percent. In each scenario, the lowest percent would be at times of high abundance, and the highest percent at the lowest abundance.

Allocations are based on the combined catch limit. In Area 2C, less than 5 million pounds is the lowest, while a range of 5 to 9 million pounds is the middle abundance tier, and the greatest is a total catch greater than 9 million pounds.

In Area 3A, the tiers are: less than 10 million pounds, between 10 and 20 million pounds, and 20 million pounds or greater.

But according letter from Rex Murphy, of the Alaska Charter Association, the charter industry would see a reduction in allocation at many of the step-ups in abundance. Instead, the association suggests an approach that would eliminate those “jinks," using an equation that creates allocations that float with abundance.

The council’s alternatives are based on the halibut catch sharing plan, or CSP, passed in 2008, which was set to take effect in 2012 until a flood of charter opposition last fall forced the council to reconsider the allocations.

Of the allocation alternatives now under consideration, the original CSP would give the charter sector the lowest share of the catch, with a range of 14 to 15.4 percent for Area 3A, and 15.1 to 17.3 for Area 2C.

The council’s preliminary preferred alternative is alternative three. That modifies the 2008 plan by eliminating a 3.5 percent buffer range around the allocations, and adjusting the allocations based on how harvest numbers changed when converted from a statewide harvest survey to logbooks data.

Under the original CSP, if the charter sector was projected to be in either 3.5 percent above or below its target allocation, different management measures come into play such as bag or size limits. The matrix of charter options has since been discarded in favor of an annual selection of management measures for the charter sector.

The charter sector would receive different allocations in Area 2C and 3A.

Ricky Gease, from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said Kenai guides don’t support that option.

Portions of the charter industry, including the Kenai organization, would prefer alternative five, which would make the greatest increase to the charter allocation. Like alternative three, it would eliminate the 3.5 percent target range and adjust allocations to reflect the harvest survey to logbook data difference.

“We’re saying, we want alternative five to allow us the greatest degree of flexibility in management going forward,” said Heath Hilyard, from the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.

The ACA in Southcentral isn’t in favor of any of the options.

“There is no need to rush to final action a second time on a plan with so many outstanding issues,” Murphy wrote in ACA’s comments.

The allocations are based on halibut abundance, and were developed from the council’s 2008 preferred alternative. That alternative used the charter sector’s past percent of the harvest to determine the formula for its future share, with different years factoring in depending on different levels of abundance.

The choice of which years to use is contentious. The Charter sector has grown over the past two decades. The no-action alternative sets the allocation based on 1995-1999 data; the other possibilities would set the levels using a formula based on the 2001-2005 harvest for times of low abundance. In times of higher abundance, the harvest for Area 2C would be based on 2005, while Area 3A would be based on 1995-1999 levels.

For the charter sector, returning to past harvest levels is seen as a cut. But for the commercial side, it’s a way to preserve the investments they made in quota in the 1990s, said Linda Behnken from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

In 1995, the charter sector was taking 9 percent of the combined charter and commercial catch in area 2C, Behnken said. In 3A, they were taking 12 percent.

“What’s on the table now could increase those percentages as high as 20 percent.”

Behnken said for a long time, allocations were determined by deducting the subsistence, sport and charter needs from the IPHC’s total amount of halibut. But a growing charter sector meant that commercial operators had a reduction in their allocation, Behnken said.

“When people have purchased quota in the commercial sector for 30 to 36 dollars a pound, to have that just reallocated away when you’re still making payments, you’ve got your house as collateral, it’s pretty hard for people to take,” Behnken said.

According to the council’s analysis of the various alternatives, the price of halibut fluctuates only minimally based on harvest levels, so commercial vessels cannot expect to make up for decreased fish with higher prices.

“An allocation to the charter sector that decreases the commercial allocation is expected to result in a small increase in ex-vessel price, but an overall decline in the net revenue of commercial harvesters,” according to the analysis.

In his comments on behalf of ACA, Murphy suggested that the council reconsider its options, and look at combining the entire recreational sector.

“The ACA suggests that a wiser approach might be to revise the CSP to include the entire recreational sector. Taking this route would solve the issues with guided and unguided accountability and sector separation, while allowing the time needed to analyze a permanent allocation transfer mechanism and sector accountability,” Murphy wrote.

The alternatives also propose different ways to reconcile years where the target allocation is exceeded differently. Under the first two management scenarios, no action would be taken in such a situation. In the latter three, the council would provide IPHC an annual analysis and management recommendation for the upcoming season.

Also on the table as part of the alternatives is the Guided Angler Fish program, or GAF.

The GAF program, as discussed at the last council meeting, would allow IFQ shareholders to lease their quota to charter operators. The leasors would offer up a certain weight, which would then be converted into fish based on prior year’s size data, and would be limited to leasing 10 percent of IFQ holdings or 1,500 pounds in Area 2C, and 15 percent of 1,500 pounds in Unit 3A, whichever number is greater. Operators would have certain marking and reporting requirements for fish caught and retained under the GAF program.

Behnken said the Halibut Coalition sees it as a fair way for charter operators to increase a client’s ability to catch fish.

“The GAF allows them to lease quota from the commercial fleet,” Behnken said.

She said that route levels the playing field.

Gease said KRSA doesn’t support the program as a long-terms solution, but sees it as as a temporary measure. In the long-term, Kenai guides want to see a sector-wide program, he said.

Hilyard said Southeast charter operators see the utility of the program, but don’t think the current iteration is ideal. The GAF, Hilyard said, is a viable option for some operators, but it’s unfair across the playing field, and could lead to confusion for clients when some operators can take them out for more fish and others can’t.

Hilyard said charter organizations expect that the GAF will be included, but want to see it revised in the future. Ideally, they’re looking for a statement from council that its only temporary, he said.

The council’s April motion, as amended in June, calls for a complete review of the GAF program within five years, meant to look at the economic effects for both sectors.

Hilyard said operators would rather see allocations purchased on behalf of the entire charter industry, and applying to the whole group, perhaps done by area. The industry is working on a proposal for such an effort, in hopes that the council would consider it in the future.

“The goal is to create a funding mechanism that allows a common pool approach,” Hilyard said.

11/11/2016 - 1:19pm