A proposed federal rule changing how the charter catch share of Pacific halibut is allocated could dramatically change the Homer guided fishing business — and the jackpot halibut derby. Depending on the size of the total allowable halibut catch, local fishermen could see limits stay the same or reduced to one fish a day or two fish with one fish a limited size.
“The recently published halibut catch sharing plan (CSP) is an absolute disgrace,” said charter captain Rex Murphy, who has been following the issue. “It represents the outright theft of up to 30 percent of the existing guided recreational allocation by industry players who will profit from this action.”
A 45-day comment period opened last Thursday for the draft federal rule first recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, or NOAA Fisheries.
Under the former rule, put in place in 2003, charter fishermen were allocated a share of the allowable harvest, called a guideline harvest level. That gave charter fishermen a number of fish they could catch per day, but did not insure the overall catch stayed within a definitive limit, NOAA Fisheries said in a press release last week announcing the proposed rule.
Currently, charter anglers fishing out of Homer and other Cook Inlet ports in Area 3A are allowed two fish a day.
Southeast charter anglers in Area 2C are limited to one fish a day.
The catch sharing plan would give the charter fleet a set percentage of the overall allowable catch. Depending on how many millions of pounds of halibut the charter fleet receives, charter fishermen would be allowed one fish a day, two fish with one less fish than 32-inches long, or two fish. The allocations could be different for Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, and Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska including Cook Inlet and Homer.
The rule does not affect halibut caught by unguided sport fishermen or subsistence fishermen.
“The proposed catch sharing plan, which is scheduled to be in place by 2012, is designed to foster a sustainable fishery by preventing over harvesting of halibut and would introduce provisions that provide flexibility for charter and commercial fishermen,” NOAA Fisheries said in its release.
Commercial halibut is managed under the Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, program, with fishermen allowed to land so many pounds of halibut based on IFQs they received or purchased.
In a new twist, charter fishermen could lease for the season IFQs from commercial fishermen that would allow them to fish for a second fish, called a guided angler fish, if a one-fish limit was imposed.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission manages Pacific halibut under a joint agreement between the United States and Canada for halibut from California to the Bering Sea. At its annual meeting in January, the IPHC sets harvest levels. The U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Secretary of Commerce then have to accept those catch limits.
After doing so, NOAA Fisheries publishes rules each year. The charter share is established before Feb. 1 each year to give charter captains and companies time to plan for the upcoming season.
In past years, the guideline harvest level for Area 3A charter fishermen has been 3.6 million pounds. Under a matrix developed for the new rule, the charter fleet would get varying percentages based on the combined fishery catch limit set by the IPHC. For example, with the 2009 catch limit of 21.7 million pounds, under the new rule the charter fleet would have received 3 million pounds, 600,000 less than the guideline harvest limit. Under that limit, guided fishermen would keep two fish, with one under 32 inches long.
In anticipation of the expected catch sharing plan, the Homer Chamber of Commerce Halibut Jackpot Derby Committee has been reviewing the derby and exploring new ideas. That work won’t be done until the fall, and no ideas have yet been presented to the chamber board.
Currently, the big, five-figure cash prize of the derby goes to the angler with a derby ticket who catches the biggest halibut during the derby season. Other prizes are awarded for each month’s biggest fish, the biggest fish caught monthly by a woman and for tagged fish. Murphy’s calculations show under one scenario the charter fishery loses 1 million pounds, a 30-percent reduction.
“Everybody recognizes this is something we need to prepare for,” said Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Monte Davis. “If it is what it is, we have to figure out how to make it work.”
Davis said he’s talking to NOAA Fisheries about sending a representative to Homer to explain the catch sharing plan at a community meeting. No time or date has been set, but Davis said he hopes to have a meeting by Aug. 14.