A New Fishery Management Program to Stabilize the Contentious Guided Sport Halibut Fishery

1 Feb

By Margaret Bauman
Reprinted from the Alaska Journal of Commerce

A new fishery management program announced Jan. 4 is expected to stabilize the contentious guided sport halibut fishery by permanently limiting participation to some 920 vessels in Southeast and the Central Gulf of Alaska regions.

The permit plan – with a 60 day application period to begin in February – would include 502 vessels in Southeast Alaska, and 418 vessels in the Central Gulf of Alaska, which includes Cook Inlet, said Jay Ginter, regulatory branch chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

The new plan, previously approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, will go into effect on Feb. 1, 2011. It grew out of a need to stabilize harvests from the guided sport fishery, which were increasing annually and coming in well beyond the guideline harvest level in some areas.

The allocation battle between setline commercial halibut fishermen and guided sport charters has gone on for well over a decade, with each side emphasizing the importance of their sector to the overall economy of Alaska.

“The new program will stabilize the guided charter fishing sector, maintain access to the fishery for businesses that participated in recent years, and allow access for others who can obtain transferable permits,” said Doug Mecum, Alaska’s acting regional administrator for NOAA fisheries. “The guided sport charter halibut sector in these areas has been growing steadily and exceeding harvest levels set to protect the halibut population. This new program adds incentive for fishermen to conserve the halibut population over time.”

Guided sport charter advocates point to the millions of dollars clients spend to book travel, hotels and other amenities along with their guided fishing trips.

The setline sector, meanwhile, notes the ripple effect on the economy of coastal Alaska of millions of dollars commercial harvesters earn and spend.

The guided sport fishery, which has repeatedly exceeded its guideline harvest level in Southeast Alaska, argues there is a need for a higher percentage of the harvest, while the setline fleet, which went to an individual quota system to control its harvest, maintains that all harvesters must share in the responsibility of conservation of the resource.

Sport charter halibut businesses will have to obtain a permit from NOAA to have clients legally catching halibut in Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska.

To qualify, owners would had to have operated in either 2004 or 2005 and in the 2008 season. To quality for a transferable permit, vessels must have logged at least 15 guided fishing trips during those two years.

Those who logged five to 15 trips would be eligible for non-transferable permits, which would be retired if the vessel owner ceases to operate guided charters.

The free permits will not have to be renewed annually, but permit holders will have to contact the National Marine Fisheries service if their business changes in any way, to see if a permit must be reissued, said NMFS fisheries analyst Rachel Baker.

NMFS officials anticipated that 347 of the 502 permits in Southeast Alaska, known as Area 2-C, would be transferable, while in the Central Gulf, also known as Area 3-A, some 319 of the 418 permits would be transferable.

An additional 173 vessels in Southeast Alaska and 154 vessels in the Central Gulf that participated in the guided fishery in 2008 were not expected to qualify because they had not participated in the 2004 or 2005 fisheries, Ginter said.

Under the new program, charter halibut permit holders would be subject to limits on the number of permits they can hold and on the number of charter boat clients who can catch and retain halibut on their charter boats.

Newcomers will be able to enter the charter halibut fishery only by acquiring transferable permits.

Permits will also be issued to community quota groups representing specific rural communities.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association at Sitka, expressed disappointment that the program would not begin until 2011, but praised the limited access program.

“It doesn’t in itself limit harvest, but hopefully it will bring some stability to the charter industry,” said Behnken.

Harvest allocations of halibut are set annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which represents interests in the United States and Canada.

Richard Yamada, a lodge owner and vice president of the Alaska Charter Association in Juneau, said he believed there won’t be much value in transferable permits for a while.

“The people who have the permits will continue to fish them,” he said. “I think the moratorium will further divide us, between the haves and the have-nots: those who qualified and those who didn’t.”

Details of the program can be viewed at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/halibut/sport.htm.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margie.bauman.@alaskajournal.com. http://www.alaskajournal.com/stories/010810/fis_9_002.shtml