Commercial-charter halibut split released for comment

A controversial halibut catch sharing plan is once again up for public comment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service published the proposed halibut catch sharing plan June 28, with 45 days for public comments.

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

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

Under the proposed plan, the International Pacific Halibut Commission would continue to set the overall catch limit each year, and the charter sector would receive a percentage of it. The exact percentage would vary based on abundance.

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 million 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 million 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.

How the charter fishermen are managed to meet that limit would still be decided on a year-to-year basis.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved that plan, which was brought forward by council member Ed Dersham, at its October 2012 meeting.

Dersham’s motion came after significant testimony, both from the charter fleet that is resistant to lower catch limits and from the commercial fleet, which sees a combined limit as necessary after enduring severe harvest cuts since 2005.

Dersham, who was appointed to represent recreational fishing interests on the council, was the sole no vote on the 2008 plan that never made it to implementation, which means this plan should have more sticking power.

The commercial sector has asked for the combined limit because it saw growth in the charter sector as cutting into the amount available for individual fishing quota holders.

Now, both sectors can weigh in on the plan once again.

As of July 9, more than 200 comments had been submitted, most of which noted issues with the program.

Comments will be taken through Aug. 12, although both of Alaska’s senators have asked for additional time for the public to weigh in.

Last time a halibut catch sharing plan made it to the proposed final rule stage, NMFS received about 1,662 comments. That was in September 2011.

The council discussed possible changes to the program based on the comments, but ultimately had to return to the council process and develop a new iteration of the CSP.

Some have said the timing this go-around, in the middle of fishing season, is inopportune.

Sen. Mark Begich asked for a 45-day extension in a July 3 letter addressed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

“This halibut catch sharing plan has been years in the making and I recognize the importance of its implementation for the stability and management of the halibut fishery,” Begich wrote. “But limiting the review period to July and early August, the peak fishing season for charter and commercial fishermen alike, is insufficient to meet the obligation to gather meaningful public comment.”

Sen. Murkowski asked for the same extension in a similar July 3 letter, also addressed to Sullivan.

When the CSP passed last fall, the response was mixed.

Representatives from the commercial sector noted that they were seeing a loss in catch from their historic levels, but that it was better than the status quo under the GHL, and was good for stabilizing the limits.

The charter sector was more negative.

Now that the plan is back up for discussion, the charter fleet is once again voicing its opposition. Several charter organizations have sent email blasts warning members of more restrictive management under the proposed CSP.

The comments submitted so far largely appear to be in response to those pushes, as they are mostly brief and don’t support the program but don’t offer reasons beyond general concerns.

And the reality of the proposed program does not mirror the concerns about destroying the charter industry.

Had the percentages been in affect in 2012, the charter industry would have received a smaller allocation than the 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 pound GHL.

But in both areas, the actual charter harvest was below the GHL in 2012, so the cuts may not have made a significant difference to the management measures.

Area 2C guided anglers were limited to one fish per day with a reverse slot limit, which allows retention of fish 45 inches or smaller, or 68 inches or greater. In 3A, guided fishermen were limited to two fish of any size.

Southeast Alaska Guide Association’s Heath Hilyard said in an email to members that if the CSP was in place this year, charter operators would have been subject to a “much more restrictive management measure” than the current reverse slot limit in Area 2C that was developed by charter stakeholders.

In a phone interview, Hilyard explained that by more restrictive management measures, he meant that if the total limit went down, fishermen might be restricted to prevent them from going over the catch.

The bottom line, Hilyard said, is that a switch to a percentage-based limit will result in a reduced catch for the charter fleet.

The 2012 charter catch for 2C was 645,000 pounds, which isn’t far off from the 633,000 it could have been under the CSP limit, which makes it less likely that more restrictive measures than the reverse slot limit would have been needed.

But if the GHL were much lower, say at the 530,000 pounds to 570,000 pounds level that Hilyard says is possible under the new structure, it would be more difficult to prosecute the charter fishery.

Another challenge, Hilyard said, is that it is difficult to manage the charter fleet as precisely as the commercial sector, due largely to how the harvest is tracked. So management can be more conservative to prevent an overage.

“I don’t think that we can prosecute an effective charter fishery….(below) about 650,000 pounds,” Hilyard said.

If the limit is below that level, management would be so draconian as to create an impossible fishery, he said.

At a lower level, the size of an allowable fish under a similar reverse slot limit would have to change, and it’d be more difficult to catch a legal fish, he said. Or, the regulation could be changed completely, to a maximum size for legal fish.

Either way, the narrower the range of an acceptable catch, the harder it is to market a charter fishing experience.

“We are not selling fish,” Hilyard said. “We are selling opportunity to catch fish.”

And customers have to believe they have a chance at those fish, he said.

Hilyard said that while some operators also own lodges or can offer a variety of fishing opportunities, like king salmon, communities like Gustavus and Petersburg are dependent on big halibut charters, and likely would suffer under reduced limits.

The CSP also includes a guided angler fish, or GAF, program that could allow charter operators to buy commercial quota, and use it to increase the amount of halibut clients can catch.

While the program is intended to provide additional harvest opportunity for the charter sector, GAF has issues of its own, Hilyard said. The small boat operators that are most hurt by any reduced harvest are also the operators who would have the hardest time buying quota, he said.

It could hurt smaller operators who can’t afford the quota, because they’ll have a harder time competing with the larger charter operators who can, Hilyard noted.

Another change is in the works that could affect the charter fleet.

That’s an effort to change the definition of a guided angler, so that a person receiving assistance, even if the assistance is coming from someone not on the same vessel, counts as guided fishing.

Right now, some operators are taking advantage of a loophole that lets them provide assistance without counting as a guide under certain conditions.

If that definition changes, Hilyard said there will be even more catch within the charter fleet. But the current percentages don’t take the uptick into account, he said.

The charter sector wants to see an increase if that definition changes.

Unguided sport fishermen would not be affected by the CSP.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

09/09/2013 - 11:42am