Continuing the debate over the halibut split

I didn’t think my commentary last week would go unnoticed by the halibut charter industry, and it certainly wasn’t.

This week the debate continues with fresh submissions from both the Halibut Coalition, a consortium of various commercial fishing organizations, and the Alaska Charter Association, a group mainly representing Southcentral guides.

We make our commentary pages available to all perspectives and I don’t mind taking a few shots like you’ll read from Rex Murphy of the ACA. If you can’t take it in this business, you better not dish it out.

In any case, I like Rex, and I like Heath Hilyard of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization who submitted a piece in our Aug. 4 issue. I like a good argument, too, so I’ll respond briefly to the most serious charge from Murphy about my Aug. 4 column.

Murphy writes that I “falsely” claimed that when the charter sector goes over its guideline harvest level — as the Southeast sector did by 3.4 million pounds over seven years from 2004 to 2010 — that those pounds are deducted from following years’ harvests.

 Murphy bases his charge on how the International Pacific Halibut Commission accounted for the overages after 2007 (you’ll have to read it to see how), but I stand by my original statement. The bottom line is that those overages were deducted from the exploitable biomass of halibut one way or another, which has the undeniable effect of reducing the available harvest.

Splitting hairs over how the charter overages were accounted for hardly qualifies as a “false” claim from my perspective. But you don’t have to just believe me.

The final rule implementing a one-halibut per day bag limit for Southeast in 2009 stated: “Charter removals should be close to the GHL or the methodology used by the IPHC to determine the Fishery CEY (Constant Exploitation Yield) is undermined and results in a de facto reallocation from the commercial sector in subsequent years.”

So even if the IPHC changed how it accounted for overages in 2007, it was still the case in 2009 and today that charter overages reduce the commercial harvest.

While we’re touching on the one-halibut rule for Southeast, Murphy blames the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for the charter overages because there were no controls in place to prevent it.

However, after several years of charter overages, the council did try to implement a one-fish limit in Southeast to stop it, but the charter sector sued twice in 2008 and in 2009 to prevent the rule from taking effect.

A regulatory technicality succeeded in stopping the rule in 2008, but a Washington, D.C., District Court judge tossed the charter challenge to the one-halibut limit in 2009.

In response, the Southeast charter sector began targeting the largest fish and the average guided angler halibut jumped from 18 pounds in 2008 to 22 pounds in 2009 and to 26 pounds by 2010, again resulting in overages to the guideline harvest level.

That led the IPHC to recommend, and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to approve, the infamous 37-inch size limit in Southeast in 2011 that finally succeeded (along with the national recession) in holding the charter sector to less than its allocation.

Speaking of that 2009 lawsuit, the judge found that the guideline harvest levels approved for Southeast and Southcentral in 2003 were “fair and equitable,” a point that Murphy makes in defense of the GHL that is to be replaced by the percentage split under the catch sharing plan if it takes effect in 2014.

Ironically, the Southeast charter operators who sued to stop the one-fish limit argued the GHL was not fair and equitable, but that’s beside the point. What is interesting that if anything, the 2003 GHL was less fair and equitable than the halibut split being proposed today.

Consider this language from the 2003 rule implementing GHL: “Setting the GHL at 125 percent of the 1995-99 harvest estimates would allow for limited growth of the guided recreational fishery, but would effectively limit further growth at this level.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, the council intent in 2003 was to put a ceiling on the charter sector that does not exist under the proposed catch sharing plan.

Murphy also alleges that the IPHC allowed the Southeast commercial fleet to “overharvest” across several years because of a management strategy called “Slow up, Fast down” that attempted to smooth out variances in the stock assessment by not raising the quota too fast, but also by splitting the difference if the surveys called for a decrease in the harvest.

In 2011, the IPHC realized this was not effective enough given the continuous decline in 32-inch or greater halibut and went to “Slow up, Full Down,” which called for implementing the full decrease in the harvest indicated by the stock assessment.

Murphy calls the original IPHC harvest strategy a gift to the commercial fleet, but if the “Full down” strategy had been in place sooner, the charter GHLs would have been reduced much sooner as well.

In another ironic twist, the “Slow up, Fast down” strategy Murphy faults the IPHC for using is the exact same rationale used by the council to implement the tiered stepdowns in the GHL.

This from the 2003 rule: “The stepwise incremental reduction was chosen by the council to provide some consideration for the natural variability of halibut stocks and not require the adoption of a new GHL every year.”

Under the GHL, a 24 percent drop in the halibut stock would only result in a 15 percent reduction in the charter harvest.

It is important to note what the Southcentral charter allocation would be under the catch sharing plan compared to the GHL. In 2012, the charter allocation under CSP would have been 2.6 million pounds. That’s not much different than the 2013 GHL of 2.7 million pounds.

In 2011, the Southcentral allocation would have been 3.1 million pounds under the catch sharing plan. That’s exactly the same as the 2012 GHL of 3.1 million pounds. From 2008 to 2010, the Southcentral allocation would have been 3.5 million pounds under the catch sharing plan, nearly identical to the 3.65 million pounds under the GHL.

In the end, the final rule does sum up the situation well and I’ll conclude with that: “… it is not possible for any allocation under the proposed CSP to make participants in both fisheries whole economically given the current halibut abundance levels.”

If the definition of a good compromise is when nobody is happy, the halibut catch sharing plan qualifies.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

12/06/2016 - 3:01pm