Halibut split approved, both sectors view action as a loss

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 10-1 to recommend a revised halibut catch sharing plan at its meeting in Anchorage Oct. 5.

The motion recommends a combined catch limit for the commercial and charter sectors, with each receiving a percentage of the harvest, beginning in 2014.

The exact charter-commercial split will be different in areas 2C, Southeast, and 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska.

In 3A, which includes Cook Inlet and other Southcentral Alaska waters, the charter allocation at less than a 10 million pound combined catch limit, or CCL, is 18.9 percent. Between 10 and 10.8 million pounds, it receives a flat 1.89 million pounds. When the CCL is between 10.8 and 20 million pounds, the industry would receive 17.5 percent.

Between 20 and 25 million pounds, the charter allocation would be 3.5 million pounds, and at times of high abundance — greater than a 25 million pound CCL — charter operators would have a 14 percent allocation.

In 2C, the charter industry receives 18.3 percent when the CCL is less than 5 million pounds, and 15.9 percent when it’s greater than 5.75 million pounds.

When the CCL falls between those two numbers, the charter industry would receive a flat 915,000-pound allocation.

Had the percentages been in affect this year, the charter industry would have received a smaller allocation than the current guideline harvest level, or GHL. The allocation in 2C would have been 633,000 pounds, less than the actual 2012 GHL of 931,000 pounds. The 3A allocation would have been 2.63 million pounds, less than the 3.1 million pounds under the GHL.

Charter customers in 3A were allowed a two-fish bag limit this year, but a lower allocation likely would have taken that away. Preserving a two fish of any size bag limit has been a priority for the charter sector in Southcentral.

The flat pound amounts between each step-up are meant to avoid decreases in allocation when abundance increases as percentages change. In making the motion, member Ed Dersham, the lone representative of the sport fishing industry on the council, acknowledged that it was a compromise, and neither sector’s preferred alternative.

Council member Dan Hull, who is a commercial halibut quota holder, agreed.

“Like Mr. Dersham, I too would have preferred to see different alternatives or choices in this action, but I believe that the votes aren’t there for that, and where we have landed with this motion is the best place that we can get to at this point,” Hull said.

Both commercial and charter representatives said the final action represented a loss for their industry.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken said the final action represented a loss for commercial vessels, but was better than the GHL status quo. The association was glad for stability, she said.

Southeast Alaska Guides Organization Vice President Russell Thomas said the move was extremely disappointing.

Council member Sam Cotten, the only no vote, said he appreciated the work that went into the motion and noted that both the charter industry and commercial sector saw the plans as taking from their allocation and made it difficult to come up with a plan.

Cotten cited the numbers the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders point as their losses under the last six years of harvest cuts, but also recognized where the charter industry was coming from seeing losses from their current GHL allocation.

Seward charter operator Steve Zernia said the status quo GHL is a fair place to start, and should be seen as the current baseline. Any less fish than it granted was a reduction in allocation, he and others said. The council was clear in its discussion that the status quo option, which would have left the GHL in place, was not an option.

Under the GHL program, the commercial sector received what halibut was left after subsistence, charter, and sport needs were calculated. After more than a decade of work, the council took final action on a catch sharing plan in 2008 that connected charter and commercial allocations. That CSP, which was scheduled to take effect in 2012, was not implemented after thousands of comments protesting the action led National Marine Fisheries Service to send the plan back to the council for further work in September 2011.

Dersham, an Anchorage resident who introduced the motion for final action, was the only no vote on the 2008 plan. As the only council member with a history in the charter sector, his approval of this plan should give it more sticking power.

Commercial fisherman Bill Burke told the council he fishes out of Homer, and has IFQ in both 3A and 3B (western Gulf of Alaska). Over the years, as the value of his quota dropped, Burke has taken on loans to purchase more. Since 2010, he’s seen the value of his quota drop between 9 percent and 25 percent per year.

The exact management of the charter allocation is left up to discussion each year, with tools including bag limits, slot limits, or other yet-to-be determined measures.

John Moline, a charter operator out of Seward, said that how the fishery is managed has a significant impact on whether or not clients opt to go fishing.

Dersham said the intention of his motion was to have a flexible management scheme that could be updated yearly. As management improves, Dersham said he thought the charter sector could be managed closer to its limit.

In 2011, the charter sector only harvested about half of its GHL in Southeast because of a 37-inch size limit proposed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets the annual harvest levels, to hold the charter sector within its allocation.

“I think clearly, as we develop a baseline of effects with different slot limits for example, that our precision can get much better and the buffer we need in actual projected numbers can become much smaller,” Dersham said.

Burke and Zernia weren’t alone during public testimony. Several charter operators from around the state testified about the challenges in their businesses.

John Baker, a charter operator out of Ninilchik, said loans aren’t unique to the commercial sector. Charter businesses also have business loans, and need fish to continue their operations, he said.

Other commercial fishermen talked about the drop in their quota – ranging from oldtimers with several decades of commercial fishing under their belts, to younger fishermen, like 18-year-old Stephen Peavey, of Craig.

“I have lost three-quarters of my quota for conservation issues and allocations to other user groups,” Peavey said. “…It is not economically viable for me to take another cut.”

The council’s action also recommended a number of other CSP details. It asked the Alaska Department of Fish and Game use logbooks as their primary data collection source, suggested eliminating skipper and crew catch, which was allowed in Area 3A but not 2C, and would make each sector responsible for its own wastage, or discarded fish.

The motion also included a Guided Angler Fish program to allow the commercial sector to lease quota to charter operators, but said the council wants to see it reviewed annually.

Several charter operators said they wanted to see that changed in the future, as the program would be hard to make equitable between operators. A group is working on a program to allow a pooled approach to purchasing quota.

10/11/2012 - 8:56pm