EDITORIAL: Protect halibut, relationships while seeking solutions

Homer is fortunate. While fish wars have bitterly divided other Alaska communities, Homer’s commercial fishing and sport charter fleets have been able to avoid most of the acrimony that’s found in other fishing towns.

Maybe part of the reason has been both industries have fared fairly well over the years. After all, they both operate out of the “Halibut Capital of the World,” and more times than not there seem to be plenty of fish for everyone. Sure, there have been allocation disagreements between the two sectors and not everyone agrees about which halibut holds the most value for Alaska — the one caught by the commercial fleet or the one caught by the charter fleet — but, for the most part, commercial and sport fishers on the southern Kenai Peninsula remember that they are neighbors. They treat each other civilly. They recognize both industries are integral parts of the unique weave that’s the fabric of Homer. City officials have been careful not to favor one sector over the other.

News coming out of the International Pacific Halibut Commission drastically changes the halibut landscape, however, and threatens both sectors of Homer’s fishing economy. Biologists have been overestimating the exploitable halibut “biomass,” or the total number or halibut that can be fished, for a number of years. The 2012 recommended catch limits in Area 3A, or southcentral Alaska including Homer, were cut 17 percent for commercial fishermen and 15 percent for charter fishermen. It’s too early to tell precisely what it means for either group — but fewer halibut will hurt Homer. Period.

High prices that have helped the commercial fleet in recent years won’t be enough to make up for fewer fish. The charter fleet will struggle with the one-halibut limit that likely will be the result of the IPHC news. And the rest of the community will fare as well (or as poorly) as those two sectors of the economy.

The news puts Homer at crossroads. As a community, we can whine and wring our hands about the unfairness of it all, we can play the blame game or we can make some decisions that move us in new directions. Some thoughts about the latter:

• As a community we need to advocate for conservation measures above all else. We’ll have neither a commercial fishing fleet nor a sport charter industry without protecting the halibut and making sure future generations can have livelihoods commercial fishing and guiding sport anglers.

• Homer’s commercial and charter fleets can create a new model for the rest of Alaska’s fishing communities by taking the lead and working together to promote conservation measures for their own good — as well as the collective good of the community.

• We need to rethink our moniker as “the halibut capital of the world.” While Homer and halibut are almost synonymous, there’s a whole lot more than halibut to fish for and it all makes for great meals — and experiences. We’re with our resident fish expert Nick Varney, who promoted the value of Pacific cod in one of his columns last summer: “... (C)od has a nice white flesh with a slightly sweet taste and is more moist than halibut. It costs mega bucks less at the store and keeps much better in the home freezer, especially when compared to salmon.” There truly is more than one fish in the sea surrounding Homer.

• While Homer is and always will be a fishing town, we need to continue our efforts to let visitors and others know there’s much more to us than fishing. Our community identity should never rely on just one resource. The flavor of Homer is its unique mix of fishing, arts, recreational opportunities, culture, wildlife, wilderness, scenic beauty and the people who live here.

• Even before the latest news from the IPHC, the Homer Chamber of Commerce was making changes to the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby. The chamber, which relies heavily on proceeds from the derby, has a lot at stake, but it recognizes its leadership position in the community. In this case, it knows the conservation of the halibut comes first.

• Finally, as we figure out what the halibut news means we should work as hard to protect our relationships within the community as we do to protect the halibut. As the adage goes, the bad news can make us bitter or it can make us better. We vote for the latter. Let’s let this bad news bring us together in search of better ways to build our community. There’s a lot more at stake here than halibut.

12/29/2011 - 9:23am