Standing room only at the Cowles Council Chambers, impassioned testimony and a three-and-a-half hour meeting might have seemed like déjà vu all over again for some seasoned observers of city politics. Monday night's Homer City Council meeting harkened back to hearings on divisive issues like big box stores and no-smoking ordinances.
About 25 people, mostly commercial or guided sport charter fishermen, spoke on a resolution introduced by council member Bryan Zak that would have directed City Manager Walt Wrede to write the U.S. Secretary of Commerce asking that the findings of a current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries socio-economic study be incorporated before adjusting the allocation of the proposed Catch Sharing Plan.
In a 4-2 vote against the resolution, the council rejected it, following the advice of Council member Kevin Hogan.
"I have to go back to the policy we established as a council and what we're supposed to do in situations like this," Hogan said. "We're supposed to stay out of it."
Hogan referred to the Homer Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, passed as a resolution last February, and a section that says, "The city of Homer should continue its unwritten policy of not taking sides in disputes between commercial and sport fishing interests, recognizing that both are vital to the Homer economy."
Even with Mayor James Hornaday keeping a tight hand on the stopwatch and limiting testimony to 3 minutes, the "comments on any matter on the agenda" section ran almost 90 minutes. That included testimony from some Homer High School students asking the council to support repairing the badly damaged high school track. About 30 students, coaches and adult runners showed up before leaving to go to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board meeting at the high school (see story, page 1).
NOAA Fisheries published the draft federal rule for the Catch Sharing Plan July 21. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, it would give the guided halibut charter fleet a set percentage of the overall allowable catch set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Depending on how many millions of pounds of halibut the fleet receives, charter fishermen would be allowed one fish a day, two fish with one fish less than 32-inches long, or two fish. The rule does not affect halibut caught by unguided sport fishermen or subsistence fishermen.
Under the new rule, charter fishermen could lease for the season IFQs from commercial fishermen that would allow them to fish for a second fish if a one-fish limit was imposed.
About equal numbers of commercial and guided sport fishermen testified on the resolution. Charter captains spoke of the economic effects on the fleet if a one-fish rule was set. Gerry Martin, owner with her husband Sean Martin of North Country Charters, said her company collected about $50,000 in borough and city sales taxes for the 2011 season, and almost $680,000 in its 33 years of business.
"In these economic times I would think the city needs the sale tax revenues as much as I need my livelihood," she said.
That kind of economic impact is what NOAA Fisheries should study, some said. Scott Glosser, another charter captain, said a one-fish rule would ruin the economy.
"When people come down the hill and see that sign that says ‘Halibut Capital of the World' - if this goes through, you're going to have to tear that sign down. It's not going to be true anymore," Glosser said.
Charter captain Mike Mans said he's had clients tell him they won't come back if it's a one-fish rule.
"It really bothers me," he said. "If they're not coming back, your restaurants are going to be empty. ... It's going to be really tough. That comes from my heart."
Commercial fishermen said the council didn't have the expertise to weigh in on the complicated task of managing international fisheries.
"With all due respect, you're not qualified to make those decisions," said Buck Laukitis, a commercial fisherman and president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association. "It's not your job. We don't hire you to do fisheries politics."
Laukitis pointed out that commercial halibut fishermen also contribute to the economy, with 1.3 million pounds of individual fishing quotas held by 479 local fishermen. Commercial fishermen could play "whose fish is holier," but he also said no one in NPFA is saying commercial fishermen can't coexist with guided sport charter fishermen.
Several commercial fishermen urged the council to stay out of the fish fight and not divide the community.
"I have many friends on the other side of the fence," said Eric Fellows. "I'd hate to see the community get divided more than this. I don't think this is the correct forum."
"It's a very complex issue," said Ginny Espenshade, the wife and mother of fishermen. "What I do understand is community. If we let this issue tear this community apart, it will."
Zak argued that the proposed Catch Sharing Plan rule was broken and needed more work. Council member Barbara Howard said NOAA Fisheries didn't have enough economic data.
Many council members said they'd heard the warnings about the economic impact to Homer and shared charter captains' concerns.