By Margaret Bauman
A proposed halibut catch sharing plan for Southcentral and Southeast Alaska that many thought was in the bag is back under public scrutiny again, much to the dismay of the setline harvesters, and applause of sports fishermen.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its decision on Sept. 29, citing some 4,000 public comments received on the proposed rule to implement a halibut catch sharing plan.
Those comments raise issues that may require additional input from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council before NOAA Fisheries can proceed to a final rule, said Glenn Merrill, head of NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Region division of sustainable fisheries.
“We are still moving forward with the rulemaking process, but we are getting some issues clarified and refining the rule based on public comments and additional council input,” he said.
Merrill cited concerns about management implications at lower levels of abundance, economic impacts of the catch sharing plan and methods for calculating the average weight for guided angler fish that may be leased from commercial individual fishing quota operators reporting guided angler fish.
Further review of public comments may also raise other technical issues that may require additional input from the council, he said. While certain issues could be resolved by NOAA Fisheries, others raise important policy and implementation questions that are best addressed by the council, he said.
The council has reserved time for the catch share issue at its December meeting in Anchorage.
Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association at Sitka, said setline harvesters are very disappointed with the delay.
We believe it shows either a lack of understanding facing the serious issues facing the resource, or an inability of managers to stand up to political pressure,” Behnken said in a telephone interview. “It’s always politically safe to say we need to study this more and the sense that you can save the fish and the fishermen, but at some point, you have to save the fish.”
Commercial fishermen are taking a 76 percent reduction in area 2C (Southeast Alaska) and the guideline harvest level in 2C is down 45 percent, while the charter fleet meanwhile has exceeded their allocation by 22 percent to 115 percent on an annual basis, she said.
Behnken, herself a longline fish harvester, has spoken out often to advocate for protection of the halibut resource and for the charter halibut industry to share the burden of conservation with the setline fleet.
“The guideline harvest level has failed to prevent charter overage,” she said. “We have stocks in poor shape and huge impact to commercial fishing. The charter catch is disproportionate to abundance in areas 2C and 3A (Southcentral Alaska), ” she said. “The commercial fleet is being asked to carry the whole burden of conservation.”
The catch share program would level the playing field between the setline harvesters and the charter industry, she said. “The commercial sector provides fish to the public. It is a much broader based public than is serviced by the charter industry.”
Because NOAA fisheries has opted to delay implementation of the catch share plan, the International Pacific Halibut Commission has to take action in 2012 to make sure that the guideline harvest levels for halibut are not exceeded.
Behnken said the guideline harvest level for the charter fleet in area 3A is close to stair stepping down if abundance drops more and the commercial catch limit will likely take a 50 percent hit over the past six years.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association meanwhile applauded the decision, saying the proposed plan would have severely limited the guided halibut industry in Southcentral Alaska as early as next season.
“We feel it is appropriate to take the time to better understand how to optimize halibut stocks, and believe sportfishing plays an important role in making the most of the fish available,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of KRSA.
The economic battle between the commercial harvesters who sell their fish to the public and the guided sport fishing industry has been steaming for years and shows no sign of abating, despite the fact that some veteran charter operators have worked closely with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to come to compromise agreements that would work for both.
While both industries contribute millions of dollars to the state’s communities, in dollars taxed and spent, the debate continues on who delivers more. Advocates for commercial harvesters living on the Kenai Peninsula, for example, are quick to point out that while the fishermen sometimes work in Alaska fisheries far from home, they bring those dollars home and spend them on the Kenai Peninsula. Advocates for the charter halibut fisheries point to the significant sums spent by tourists beyond the fee for fishing on a charter, in hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
One commercial setline fisherman, Brent Western, in an opinion piece published recently in the Anchorage Daily News, noted that fisheries management is complex and the catch-sharing plan is no exception. The catch-sharing plan, said Western, “establishes a framework that provides resource protection management stability for the halibut industry and an essential mechanism for transfer between sectors. Well-informed public comment and discourse contributed to that decision, he said. Speculation and misinformation do nothing but fuel conflict,” said Western, whose family has fished for halibut, herring and salmon in Alaska since the 1960s.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at email@example.com.