By Dave Donaldson
Legislators last week took a lesson in fish management and politics .. and they got a chance to show their frustration with the federal government’s restrictions on SouthCentral and Southeast halibut harvests.
Everyone agreed with the need to protect the state’s halibut resource — all the legislators, federal and state managers, and representatives of charter and commercial fishing groups most-effected by the upcoming changes. They also agreed with a federal decision to extend by fifteen days the public comment period on the proposed Halibut Catch-Sharing Plan. That extension was announced by Glenn Merrill, with the National Marine Fisheries Service. He says the goal is to make any needed final changes based on the new comments. That will get the plan before the International Pacific Halibut Commission in November, publication of a final rule in December and another Commission meeting in January where final action will take place.
If the final Catch-sharing plan is available and the IPHC makes specific recommendations on management measures that would effect the charter fleet – those would be implemented through the annual management measure process. So the IPHC will make the recommendation in January and in March will will implement that through a regulatory process.
But praise and thanks for the extension marked the end of camaraderie. In its current form, the new management plan could force further restrictions on charter sportfish operators – cutting the catch limit from two to one fish in some places — and from a 37-inches to 32-inches maximum limit in others.
Anchorage Republican Craig Johnson pushed for more information. He saw the need to protect the resource, but wanted to know how the plan had been developed without any economic studies having been done.
It almost appears that what you are doing with this plan is covering your backside because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And you recognize that in doing that you’re going to have a tremendous economic impact on Alaska.
He said he doesn’t see how any management decisions could be made in good conscience without economic data.
If you make this decision, I don’t think you’ve done due diligence. And I think you’ve done a disservice to the State of Alaska, to the citizens — my constituents, the constituents in Southeast, everywhere – as well as the resource. Unless you have that information, you’re making your decisions in a vacuum.
Charter operators say the federal and international managers are going too fast. Heath Hilyard, the Executive Director of the Southeast Guides Organization, said that science needs to let the commission look at the impact of reduced harvests had this summer. Hilyard explained that Charter Guides do not sell fish, they sell Opportunity. But with the size restrictions now on them, clients have nothing to work for.
Many charter clients are looking for the opportunity to catch a trophy fish and are satisfied when they catch something smaller. But when you tell clients they can’t catch anything larger than 37-inches, the demand and effort are greatly diminished. It’s a bit analogous to going to Las Vegas to gamble and being told that if you win the big jackpot, you can keep a quarter of it or have to give it back entirely.
Over the past half decade, commercial fishermen have seen their individual shares plummet with annual reductions in the amount of halibut they are allowed to harvest. Mark Vinsel, the Executive Director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the new regulations for charter fishermen are overdue. He says the plan meets three simple goals.
It establishes a clear allocation between charter and longline sectors, sharing the burden of conservation. It establishes a responsive management system with proactive accountabiloity measures. It prevents annual catch-limit overages. And it provides a mechanism for the transfer of quotas from the commercial to the charter sector
Vinsel says British Columbia has closed down its halibut charter operations completely. He told legislators – who will have no direct input into the decisions to be made this winter – that quick action is the best way to avoid putting at risk the sustainability of the halibut resource.