New version of licensing bill for fishing guides on tap

Correction: The original version stated guides must pass an exam every two years to receive their license. They must renew their license every two years, but the exam is not required unless the applicant has not renewed his or her license for the previous four years.

A revised version of a bill to create a new board for licensing sport fishing guides and outfitters is set to come back to the Senate Resources Committee.

Senate Bill 24 was introduced in 2011 by Sen. Lesil McGuire of Anchorage and has undergone numerous changes in response to public input over the last year.

SB 24 would create a new Sport Fishing Guide Services Board with nine members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, and would require all guides, assistant guides and transporters to pass an exam every two years to receive their licenses to operate.

Outfitters, who are prohibited from accompanying clients during sport fishing activities under the bill unless they also have a guide license, are not required to take an exam to receive a license under the revised version.

An estimated 5,000 guides, outfitters and transporters operating in Alaska would be affected.

The board’s nine members will be five sport fishing guides from both freshwater and saltwater sectors, one licensed transporter, a member of the Board of Fisheries, and two members of the public who are not licensed guides but are familiar with the industry, concerns of landowners and access issues.

The legislative path forward will include another hearing on the revised version before the Resources Committee, which McGuire co-chairs, and from there it would go to Senate Finance to determine the cost of the new board and the level of license fees.

Currently, license fees are $100 for an operator and $50 for a guide, and there’s about a $160,000 annual shortfall between license revenue and the cost of the logbook program that is covered by Alaska Department of Fish and Game general funds.

If it passes the Senate, it would go to the House Fisheries Committee and likely the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

The legislation also creates a “master guide” license — authorizing use of that title — that may be issued if an applicant has operated as a sport fishing guide for at least 12 of the prior 15 years, including the immediately preceding year, and submits 10 endorsement letters from clients.

The revised version of SB 24 also requires a conversion to electronic reporting of logbook data as well as an annual report to the governor and Legislature about the economic impacts of the sport fishing industry in Alaska and management recommendations.

“Sport fishing is an important industry that affects the lives of thousands of Alaskans and the economic health of coastal communities,” McGuire wrote in response to questions. “I truly believe that the sport fishing industry can better represent the needs of the industry than a state agency can and therefore thought a sport fishing guide services board would be beneficial.”

The economic benefits of sport fishing compared to commercial fishing is an argument that has long dominated the so-called “fish wars” in Alaska.

SB 24 is an avenue for collecting that sort of economic information, and is also a way to raise the political profile of the industry, according to Southeast Alaska Guides Organization executive director Heath Hilyard.

“This provides the stamp of approval from the state of Alaska,” Hilyard said. “That’s important, but perhaps more important is the increased representation the charter industry will have in fisheries management issues.”

Catch data

The bill would require logbook reporting on unguided angler trips. Currently, unguided angler harvest has a two-year lag in reporting because it is based on responses from the statewide harvest survey mailed annually to fishing license holders.

The prohibition on outfitters accompanying clients in SB 24 was designed to address the issue of “bare back” charters, which is anecdotally reported to be on the rise in Southeast because of the increasingly stringent charter regulations.

A “bare back” charter refers to a guide or outfitter leading anglers to good fishing spots without being onboard the vessel, thus circumventing the restrictions on charter anglers.

“I felt that it was important to put a logbook into the hands of the people that offer unguided trips in Alaska so that (Department of) Fish and Game has access to the catch data they need to protect the resource,” McGuire wrote. “By expanding the universe of who is licensed and required to submit catch data to ADF&G, SB 24 would do that.”

Those groups officially supporting SB 24 include Kenai River Sportfishing Association and Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. Alaska Charter Association, or ACA, based in Homer, opposed the original version of the bill and planned a board meeting Jan. 12 to discuss the revised version. (The Journal went to press Jan. 11)

“I’m personally encouraged by the new version,” said ACA Executive Director Greg Sutter. “Our board hasn’t made a decision as of yet.”

Opposition to the bill has largely come from some saltwater charter operators in Prince William Sound such as Jack Roskind of Knot Roughin’ It Charters and Kristen Labrecque of Saltwater Excursions, both in Whittier, who see a new board as unnecessary for the saltwater sector because they are already subject to federal regulations and U.S. Coast Guard licensing requirements.

Roskind also questioned how, given the major differences between operating in saltwater and freshwater, a board made up of users not familiar with other sectors could come up with appropriate regulations or test questions.

Of the 10 or so operators in Prince William Sound, Roskind said none were in favor of SB 24, although he praised McGuire and her chief of staff Mike Pawlowski for listening and being responsive to stakeholder concerns.

There were three hearings last session in February, and another hearing in October. McGuire also set up a website to take public comment.

“She said she wanted to hear everything, and she did exactly what she said she was going to do,” Roskind said. “I’m still opposed to it, but it’s considerably better than the first version.”

Labrecque, who also flies clients for hunting and fishing trips, successfully pushed for the elimination of new requirements for guides who fly as conflicting with existing Federal Aviation Administration rules.

Sanction authority

A key provision of the bill for its supporters within the guide industry is the authority for the board to sanction license-holders with penalties ranging from reprimand to revocation if they are convicted of violating state or federal laws while providing guide services.

Under current state law there is nothing prohibiting a guide convicted of defrauding a client from receiving a guide license. SB 24 also stipulates that an applicant may not receive a license if their license has been revoked in another state, Canada or Mexico.

“It’s important to have those parameters in place,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “As it is now, those folks can pay their fine and reapply and get their license to be a guide the following year. That doesn’t help protect the consumer from getting ripped off.”

Other justifications for sanction by the board include failure to file logbook data or other reports required under law, or for negligently misrepresenting or omitting facts on their application.

In response to stakeholder input, disciplinary authority for breaching an agreement with a client where a conviction has not happened, or for failing to comply with a board-crafted code of conduct, were removed as being too broad and open to interpretation.

Path to limited entry?

Another key element removed from the original version was requiring licenses and testing for various guide “units” where an applicant intends to operate. This was seen as a path to limited entry, particularly on the crowded Kenai River where angler conflicts are common.

All references to guide “units” were removed, and new language was inserted that requires the new board to approve any sort of limited entry regulations in the future.

What were interpreted as limited entry provisions in the first version led Alaska Charter Association to oppose the bill, and McGuire stated she heard those concerns, especially in light of the new limited entry rules for halibut charter operators that saw the number of permits cut by about a third in 2011.

“I don’t support limited entry for guides unless there is a compelling conservation concern, and even then only when traditional methods have been shown to be ineffective,” she wrote to the Journal. “The concept of guide use areas in the original version of SB 24 was intended to first, require guides to demonstrate a knowledge of the area they are fishing in and second, to put the sport fishing industry at the table when decisions that could limit entry are made.

“I think we have all seen the devastating impact federal actions have had recently in the salt water and I strongly feel that those being affected should be engaged deeply and meaningfully in the process. That is why I listened to the comments that SB 24 could be a vehicle for limited entry and removed those sections from the bill.”

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

01/19/2012 - 6:07am