Central Peninsula residents usually embroiled in salmon-related issues are now taking sides over another cash crop of the area — halibut.
Specifically, commercial and sport fishing interests have drawn lines in the sand regarding a proposed halibut management plan designed to alleviate fishery-wide pressures caused by a decline in the amount of halibut available for harvest.
On the Central Peninsula, the sport fishing conversation is dominated by lodge owners and managers — like Bill Davis of the Salmon Catcher Lodge in Kenai — who think the plan could spell the end of one of the industries they depend on.
Davis thinks a provision in the plan that would regularly adjust the guided angler's bag limit between two fish of any size to one fish, based on results of stock estimates, would "break" the Peninsula.
"If they take the halibut away from us, there is a good chance we will put this up for sale," he said of the lodge he manages.
Simply put, fishermen won't travel to Alaska and spend several hundred or thousands of dollars to catch one halibut per day, he contends.
But commercial halibut fishermen like Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, are skeptical of such statements. Maw said commercial fishermen have already been hit with previous conservative regulations.
"I think it's a little bit of ‘Chicken Little,' you know running around saying the sky is falling and ‘Woe is me,'" Maw said. "Will it affect their business? Undoubtedly. But, will it force them out of business, every last one they are claiming? No. We're businessmen — we make things work."
Glenn Merrill, assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said during a state legislative committee meeting Thursday that his organization has already received hundreds of letters on the subject from all sides .
Now, Merrill said he expects thousands of letters thanks to the extension of the plan's public comment period for an additional 15 days through Sept. 21.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is gathering feedback on the "catch sharing plan" — a draft rule recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to establish a clear stock allocation between the commercial and charter sectors fishing Alaska's Southcentral and Southeast areas.
Currently, the two interests — commercial and charter — are managed separately.
But under the new catch sharing plan, the total catch would be split between the two sides after all non-commercial and non-charter uses — mostly unguided sport harvest and subsistence — are subtracted.
Depending on how many millions of pounds are left, the charter industry will land in one of four tiers giving them a percentage of the catch, varying between 10.5 percent and 18.9 percent.
The tier system also sets a bag limit of either two fish of any size, two fish with one less than 32 inches long, or one fish.
"The number one consideration is that the halibut stock has seen a steep decline in recent years, and so the overall goal is to stabilize and rebuild," said Julie Speegle, public affairs officer for NOAA fisheries Alaska region. "Any management measures that are implemented would be with that end goal in mind because that's just for the overall economic benefit of the charter fishers and the commercial fishers."
Speegle said a one-halibut limit for guided anglers is "definitely not a sure thing" despite the cries of the charter industry.
"The conjecture that the catch sharing plan would result in a one-fish any size per day is based on an assumption that the 2012 limits will be the same as the 2011 limits," she said. "That is really unknown at this point."
She confirmed that if the plan was in effect this year, it would have limited the charter industry to one fish per angler, she said.
Mike Crawford, head of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory committee, said at an emergency meeting Thursday the catch sharing plan would leave a "huge dent" in the charter industry, if not worse.
"This is a charter boat killer, this is an industry killer," he said.
Crawford thinks commercial interests would argue the charter sector needs to share in the "burden of conservation."
"But, we're not saving those fish," he said of the potential cut in halibut allocation to the charter sector. "That quota is going to get caught on the commercial side. This is a total allocation issue. This is not a conservation issue."
Much of the catch sharing plan, Crawford thinks, was developed in response to the Southeast fishery — area 2C — where harvest has exceeded guideline levels every year since 2004.
Merrill said the Southcentral charter fleet — area 3A consisting of Homer, Seward, Ninilchik and Deep Creek — only exceeded its guideline harvest level once, in 2007.
However, commercial interests have suffered decreasing levels of individual fishing quota — or IFQ — in both areas.
Since 2003, area 3A has seen a 37-percent reduction in allowable commercial catch, Merrill said. During the same time period in Southeast, the industry has declined by 73 percent, he said.
"Over the past 10, 15 years or so there has just been a huge growth in the charter halibut industry in Alaska and they have been overharvesting their guideline harvest level which results in a decline in the allowable catch for the commercial industry," Speegle said, noting she was mostly referring to area 2C.
Crawford, however, feels the charter fleet has already carried the conservation weight in 3A by sticking close to its guidelines.
"We've been limited to two fish when there was a high abundance of halibut out there," he said. "We weren't keeping four fish, six fish, eight fish, 12 fish."
He also pointed to the Charter Halibut Limited Access program that recently forced 30 percent of the charter fleet out of business through prior permit approval requirements, he said.
"They put 30 percent of the charter boats out of business this year for an allocation issue and now they are going to put another 30 or 40 percent of them out business with this plan," Crawford said.
Speegle said the goal of that program was "to stabilize the growth of the charter halibut industry so that it wouldn't become so overgrown that nobody could make a living doing it."
Maw said about half of UCIDA members hold halibut IFQ. He said the organization would formally support the measure.
Maw, who has been commercially fishing for halibut since 1973, said he thought the plan was a balanced approach to conservation.
"When we have the biomass and the fish that can be exploited, when that's high, then we all share, and when the abundance is low as it is now ... the plan says everyone is to back off and let the stocks recover," he said.
Drew Sparlin, a Kenai-based commercial halibut and salmon fisherman, shared a similar sentiment.
"We know that if the resource is in trouble, we have got to do something to take care of it and it may be painful for all of us," he said at the Fish and Game advisory committee meeting Thursday. "We can't let this thing get to the point where we can't recover."
Davis, however, still isn't convinced the catch sharing plan is the answer. In fact he said he has gathered about 450 letters opposing the plan signed by charter operators, guides and lodge owners to personally deliver to Alaska Rep. Don Young in Washington D.C. in mid-September.
He contends the Peninsula's economy rests on the shoulders of the sport fishing industry and more specifically the ability to catch two halibut as a way to satisfy customers when salmon fishing is slow.
"They are destroying tourism here and when tourism leaves the Peninsula, the last guy brings the flag and shuts the lights off because it's statistically proven that fish is worth 10 times as much in the river or in the freezer through sport caught than it is through commercial caught," he said.
Davis also mentioned area 2C, where charter fishermen currently are limited to one halibut per day no longer than 37 inches.
"In Southeast my friends have either gone out of business this summer, or they are going out of business," Davis said.
Marc Smith, owner of D&M Charters based in Deep Creek, said the catch share plan hurts places like Deep Creek and Ninilchik the most because the area is halibut-specific and lacks multiple species fishing opportunities.
"We will go back to a clam digging village like we were back in the ‘70s," he said.
Smith said he is determined to fight the plan.
"If it's the last thing I do at 60 years old before I pass away, I will do everything in my power to stop the commercial people from running over the top of us," he said "This is bull. And our legislators are going to take a wait and see attitude? You are talking economics and there again where was all the economic data on this when they decided this is what we are going to do?"
Maw said "nobody wanted" the catch sharing plan, "but the fish have to come first."
He said he feels for the charter operators affected by the regulation if it approved as is. But, "the fish just can't withstand this pressure," Maw said.
"I'm not happy about losing half of my quota," he said. "But, at some point you have to look the brutal facts in the face and say, ‘Yeah, I've got to back off ... or we are going to be in real trouble.'"