Charter operators worry halibut catch restriction will hurt business

One fish, blue fishermen

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Southcentral halibut charter boat clients could soon be changing their plans now that the International Pacific Halibut Commission has limited them to catching just one fish per day during the last two weeks in June.

Friday at its 83rd annual meeting held in Vancouver, B.C., the IPHC opted to restrict the charter catch in Area 3A during the two-week period in an effort to keep the unrestricted and growing charter fleet from exceeding its guideline harvest levels (GHLs) as it has in recent years.

Area 3A covers Southcentral waters from Cook Inlet and Shelikof Strait to just south of the Copper River Delta.

The commission also restricted the charter catch in Area 2A, which covers much of Southeast, but there, the IPHC imposed a one-fish limit from June 15 to the end of July.

Many charter operators were angered over the decision that they say will cause customers — some of whom have already paid $200 or more for fishing trips — to cancel once they learn they’ll have a shot at only one fish. If they lose customers, charter operators warn, the impact will be felt by the wider tourism industry because fewer anglers would mean fewer customers for stores, restaurants, hotels, car rentals and more.

Homer charter operator Donna Bondioli, with the Alaska Charter Association, said association members were extremely concerned. She said she knows some from Southeast who already have had clients cancel.

“I’ve heard of several in Southcentral who have had calls, and some Alaska customers have changed their charter dates in case this is not stopped,” she said. Some of her own customers also have called trying to find ways of avoiding the one-fish period.

Seward charter operator Andy Mezirow said he’s concerned, in part because the decision occurred in a forum not entirely open to the public. Problems of halibut allocation should be resolved at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, he said, not by a treaty organization.

Mezirow said the IPHC took guideline harvest levels and applied an errant interpretation, treating them as if they were hard allocation limits.

“It’s just a guideline,” he said. “Now an international treaty organization has made its own interpretation and enacted regulations harmful to the industry where it was not necessary.”

There has been some talk of a lawsuit, but Mezirow said that until U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez signs the IPHC’s ruling it is not law and has no effect. Thus, no one is yet harmed and there is no basis for a suit. That could soon change, he said.

Mezirow said he was not pointing any fingers at commercial longline fishermen, but from his perspective, a suit should allege that the political process for allocating fish was not properly served. He said he hopes U.S. officials will recognize that and not sign off on the decision.

Bondioli said Alaska Charter Association members are going to launch a letter-writing and fax campaign to send comments to the secretary urging him not to sign the ruling. Even though the 3A one-fish period is only 15 days long, it represents almost 15 percent of her 103-day season, she said. For charter fishermen operating only 60 days, it’s a quarter of the season.

“It doesn’t seem significant, but it’s a tremendous bite out of the tourist industry,” she said.

She agreed with Mezirow that the guideline harvest levels are not hard caps. Furthermore, she said there are no official legal sanctions for exceeding them, so the IPHC shouldn’t try imposing any.

Not everyone sees it like that, however. Linnea Osborne, of Douglas in the Southeast 2C area, said the IPHC’s decision was a reminder to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council that it had not fulfilled its commitment to the public to properly manage “another growing commercial sector.” She said the issue was not new, but will continue until limitations are placed on the charter fleet.

“The big question is who should be held accountable, the commercial charter fleet, who do not want to make hard choices within their own industry, or their fellow Alaskans,” she said in a letter to the Clarion. Osborne was also contacted by phone.

“This is not an allocation struggle between sports fishermen and the commercial IFQ halibut fishermen, but a struggle between two commercial industries that make a living from the same public resource,” she said.

What limits have been imposed on the charter operators were not followed up as the fleet increased, Osborne said.

Sitka resident Victoria O’Connell, who also wrote the Clarion, argued that the U.S. consumer has been largely left out of the story, pointing out that while the charter fleet serves a high-end client, the commercial fleet is fishing for the nation’s consumers.

“When you look at the allocation split in this way, it becomes obvious that the charter industry is really getting considerably more than its ‘fair’ share based on access to the resource,” she said.

O’Connell said the 2C commercial fleet had stayed within its limits over the past 10 years, while the Southeast charter fleet had exceeded their guided harvest levels every year since they were put in place.

Kenai resident Dennis Barnard took another tack in his letter to the Clarion. He noted that many charter clients are local Alaskans, and that the new limit would take from many of them their commonly used method of harvest.

Bondioli said she hoped Gov. Sarah Palin would appoint a sport fish advisor. Advisors to past administrations have always been commercial fish advisors, she said.

“It’s also up to the governor to nominate people to the (North Pacific Fisheries Management Council). Out of 11 on the council, only one is a recreational fishing representative. We need equal representation on the North Council,” Bondioli said.

Paul Carter, president of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said members are disappointed by the IPHC decision.

“In our discussions, the charter boat industry said there are other alternatives that wouldn’t hurt as much as this does,” he said, adding he knows of some charters who have had reservations canceled over the one-fish limit.

One problem, he said, has been the effect of press coverage and customers learning of a one-fish limit, but not realizing it’s only a two-week limit, leaving the tourist industry in a scramble to educate buyers.

“That’s an uphill battle,” he said.

Carter also said there will be an all-out effort to try to talk with the commerce secretary in the hopes of finding a viable alternative plan.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.



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