Halibut charter operators brace for more cuts in 2020
The continued decline of Pacific halibut stocks in Alaska’s waters is putting increasing pressure on the charter fleets in Southcentral and Southeast as they try to attract clients.
Though the International Pacific Halibut Commission has yet to formally decide on catch limits for the various sectors, survey data discussed at the commission’s interim meeting in November indicates that catch limits are likely to go down to keep the stock within acceptable limits in the future. The Gulf of Alaska is down in particular, with fishermen there facing more restrictions in the future to maintain a healthy stock.
Because the council won’t know what the sector allocations are until the first week of February, when the IPHC will meet in Anchorage, the council recommended a progressive set of recommendations for the charter fleet that become more restrictive as the catch limit goes down.
In Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, the measures begin with instituting a reverse slot limit with an upper limit fixed at longer than 80 inches and a lower limit increasing until the allocation is reached, and progress to closing some Wednesdays and decreasing the lower size limit until the allocation is reached.
In Area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, the situation is different because there isn’t as much information available to analyze what could be done to decrease the charter fleet harvest. Until more information is available, the council recommended maintaining status quo management measures with the addition of closed Tuesdays throughout the year and reducing the size of the second allowed fish on charter boards from 28 inches to 26 inches or less.
The recreational charter fleet has its own allocation separate from the commercial fleet. While the Southeast Alaska charter fleet has fluctuated between more and less than its allocation, the Central Gulf of Alaska fleet has consistently exceeded its allocation. Participation has declined in Area 3A over the years but generally increased in Area 2C, said Sarah Webster, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in a presentation to the council.
“Effort has been increasing across 2C over the years, but was down in 2019,” she said. “The projection is for a small increase in 2020.”
The Charter Halibut Management Committee, a stakeholder-run committee that offers advice to the council on how to manage the charter fleet, considered a variety of recommendations on how to work with the new information about the halibut stock, but the recommendations for the Gulf of Alaska were so low that no one quite knew how to proceed, Webster said.
“The takeaway is that nobody expected the numbers to be nearly this low when (the Charter Halibut Management Committee) met back in October,” she said.
Halibut numbers have been declining across the Pacific coast for several years, without any single known cause; environmental causes and fishing pressures have been linked to declining recruitment, and though there are some promising age classes showing in the data, they are too young to be included in the fishery yet.
Southeast Alaska in particular has felt the pinch of the tightening regulations. The charter fleet there largely targets king salmon, silver salmon and halibut. King salmon have been in decline across the state since about 2007, with especially low numbers in some of the stream systems in Southeast Alaska.
In order to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, fisheries managers have to provide a certain level of escapement, and with fewer fish coming back, that means less and less opportunity for Southeast Alaska’s salmon fishermen.
Charter fishermen have been able to divert to fish halibut, but that’s becoming more of a struggle, said Forrest Braden, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, a nonprofit representing sportfishing guides across the region.
“It’s not the only front where they’re losing fish to market, but there’s no optimism,” he said. “They’ve only seen reductions.”
Southeast Alaska has three major legs to its economy: commercial fishing, government and tourism. In recent years, cruise ship traffic has dramatically increased, with tourists looking for charter boats as excursions when they dock at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Skagway, the four major cruise ship destinations.
Many independent travelers also seek out guided trips as a way to either fill their freezers or for recreational purposes. Guides usually try to book in advance, but with the tightening regulations, they are seeing more cancellations, Braden said. This summer, though statistics say participation was up, guides are anecdotally reporting holes in their schedules, he said.
“I think there’s recognition that each of the sectors have tipping points and that the charter fleet is at a tipping point,” he said. “I think the message was that we need to brace ourselves, because obviously, the IPHC forecast … is that the stock is going to continue to decline for the next couple of years.”
There’s some hope coming in the form of the Recreational Quota Entity program, though, he said. The RQE program, developed through the North Pacific council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, would allow some commercial quota to be purchased by the charter fleet through an approved single entity to be used in a pool format as allocated quota for the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A.
Full implementation of the program is held up in Congress, though, with a logjam of conflicting interests within a bill and likely delayed by the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. During the council meeting Dec. 7, members requested an update at the next meeting in February with current information about the status of the RQE program.
Area 3A charter operators may be looking at some more stringent regulations, and those that testified to the council said they were concerned about the sustainability of the charter industry if they cannot adequately market trips.
Council member and charter operator Andy Mezirow said the Advisory Committee is considering a variety of options to say within their allocation, but with the unexpectedly low numbers in the halibut survey sent to the IPHC, they needed more information before providing specific recommendations.
“We would just really need to be able to weigh all the options to be able to go that far down,” he said.
The IPHC’s annual meeting is scheduled to take place from Feb. 3-7, 2020, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled meet the week before, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2020, in Seattle.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].