NOAA officials get earful on new halibut rules

A standing-room only meeting last Friday night with two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries representatives turned as stormy as the seas that blew in at the Homer Spit outside Land’s End Resort. About 150 people, mostly charter captains and crew, packed the room at the resort.


The Homer Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, billed as an informational meeting to give NOAA officials Glenn Merrill and Rachel Baker a chance to explain the complicated halibut catch sharing plan. After Baker did a slide presentation on the plan, questions soon turned into criticisms.

“I think this community is outraged,” said Scott Glosser, a halibut charter captain. “Communities all across Alaska are outraged at what this means to the economy here.”

“We came here knowing it would be hot,” Merrill said. “I understand what your perspective is. You’re telling me clearly with a lot of emotion what you feel.”

A 45-day comment period opened July 21 for the 242-page draft federal rule first passed in an 11-1 vote in 2008 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and implemented by NOAA Fisheries. After comments are reviewed, the rule goes to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for approval or rejection.

Reaction to the rule on the central Kenai Peninsula also has been strong. Bill Davis, owner of Salmon Catcher Lodge in Kenai, said he was planning to hand-deliver comment letters to Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young when he visits Washington, D.C. Sept. 14 for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, an event he had planned to attend prior to the release of the draft rule. He’s asking that concerned fishermen who would like him to deliver their letter to send them to him at P.O. Box 2200, Kenai, AK 99611.

The catch sharing plan would give the guided halibut charter fleet a set percentage of the overall allowable catch determined annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

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 of any size, which is the current allowable catch. The allocations could be different for Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, and Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska including Cook Inlet and Homer.

“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 a press release announcing the draft rule last month.

Previously, guided sport fishermen in Area 3A received an annual guideline harvest level of 3.6 million pounds — a limit exceeded only once, Merrill said. 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.

Using historical catch limits and applying them to the proposed matrix, Cook Inlet could see a one-fish limit if the plan goes into effect — a limit that wouldn’t be set until late February after the IPHC holds its annual meeting.

That fear was on the minds of many who asked questions and spoke last week.

“Charter fleets, we have to sell our trips a year in advance,” said Jack Montgomery, co-owner of Rainbow Tours. “You have to call them (clients) in mid-March and say, ‘You can only catch one fish.’ You heard the man. We’re dead.”

One side of the matrix establishes percentages of the combined catch limit allocated to the charter fleet, about 14 percent under most scenarios. The other side sets bag and size limits based on projections if the allocation is below the range, within the range or exceeds the range of the charter fleet’s allocation. How that projection is made, and the quality of the information to make it, got much of the criticism. Chris Donich, a charter business partner who is coordinating a letter-writing campaign against the catch sharing plan, asked how the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — the agency doing projections — would do that.

Merrill conceded that it’s complicated to analyze how charter fishermen would react to bag and size limits in the context of the tourist industry and the ever changing world economy.

“It’s almost impossible to predict what economic conditions will be like for the next six months,” he said. “There is an art. We anticipate that if this program is implemented, over the years there will be a back and forth.”

That’s an issue Ed Dersham, the lone NPFMC member who voted against the catch sharing plan, sees as a flaw.

Two things make it difficult to do projections. One thing is trying to predict the average weight of the fish caught under varying scenarios.

“The other thing is trying to predict angler demand under various scenarios,” Dersham said in a phone interview after Friday’s meeting.

“I didn’t think it was a fair and equitable allocation to the charter fleet,” Dersham said for why he voted against the CSP.

Some charter captains at the meeting also questioned the quality of the economic studies done to determine how the charter fleet would react. NOAA cites a 2007 study by Southwick Associates, “Economic Impacts and Contributions of Sportfishing in Alaska,” as research used to support the rule. That study looked at sportfishing in general and not the guided halibut fishery.

“One of the problems, and I know this has been a big critique, there was limited data that was available,” Merrill said.

Baker, a fishery management specialist with an economics degree, said NOAA Fisheries doesn’t know what applying the bag and weight limits would do to angler demand.

“We realize we’re falling short on economic data,” she said.

NOAA is in the process of doing future economic studies of the guided angler demand, said Julie Speegle, a NOAA Fisheries spokesperson.
Southeast Alaska in Area 2C already has a one-fish under 37-inches rule, put in place this year. Russell Thomas, general manager of Alaska Sportfishing Expeditions in Ketchikan, said the full impact of the rule hasn’t taken effect, but will in 2012.

Fishermen who made plans before the catch limits and didn’t want to lose reservation deposits still came this season, so the number of anglers wasn’t down dramatically. Thomas has seen walk-in fishermen who didn’t make plans ahead of time not going out.

With the smaller bag limit, Area 2C also is seeing not only fewer fish caught, but average numbers under 37 inches. Initial estimates are that the charter fleet will catch 400,000 to 500,000 pounds, way under its GHL.

“We recognize that once that limit has been established, that we need to adhere to it,” Thomas said. “We also think that what this regulation says is ‘Here’s your limit and now we’re going to give you a regulation that doesn’t allow you to fish to your limit.’”

Nancy Hillstrand, owner of Coal Point Seafoods, raised the issue of halibut by-catch caught by the trawler fleet. Along with recreational sport and subsistence fishing, by-catch is removed off the top of the estimate of exploitable biomass before the catch share limit for the commercial fishing and charter allocations are made.

“That’s not allocation. What that is called is waste,” she said. “What we’re wondering and we’ve been wondering for 20 years is why this has been allowed to happen.”

Merrill said NPFMC is addressing the issue of by-catch.

Donich questioned the idea of the “guided angler fish,” another feature of the catch sharing plan. Charter fishermen could buy individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, from commercial fishermen to allow clients to catch another fish if a one-fish limit is set.

“If you do that, the guided angler fish is based on an average size fish,” she said.

"What if the average size fish is 20 pounds and the fisherman catches a 100-pound fish?" she asked.

“They’ve gone over 80 pounds. That makes no sense at all to regulate,” Donich said.

That’s a criticism charter captain Rex King also makes. King, who has studied the proposed rule and analyzed its impacts, said in Southeast Alaska fishermen who get a guided angler fish are going to hit known “honey holes” and more likely go after jumbo fish. Fishermen would be paying for a smaller, average size fish but more likely catching big fish.

“That wasn’t necessarily clearly defined,” Merrill admitted about specifics of the guided angler fish concept.

Some charter captains questioned why the catch sharing plan was needed after NOAA Fisheries limited the fleet by more than 300 boats this year with limited entry permits, a program that cut some charter businesses out of guiding halibut because boats had not qualified or fished enough under the rules. Merrill explained the catch sharing plan rule was passed by the NPFMC before the limited entry program happened.

The meeting ended with some captains feeling the catch sharing plan is a done deal. Donich passed out fliers urging halibut fishermen to comment on the plan, with the plea “This is not hopeless.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and administrator of NOAA, visits Homer with Sen. Mark Begich on Tuesday. They speak at a Homer Chamber of Commerce luncheon about 12:15 p.m. at the Best Western Bidarka Inn.

To make comments on the draft catch sharing plan rule, send them to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region, NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian. Identify comments by the number 0648–BA37 and send through any one of the following methods:

  • Electronic submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal Web site at
  • Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802–1668
  • Fax: 907–586–7557
  • Hand delivery: 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau

For more information and the complete text of the rule, visit

Michael Armstrong can be reached at