Charter captains battle regs

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Monday night, the wind was howling and snow was falling, but Capt. Steve Smith of Captain Steve's Fishing Lodge was thinking about catching halibut.

Or not catching halibut, as the case may be.

Smith is one of more than 300 applicants denied a charter halibut permit required as of Feb. 1, through a National Marine Fisheries Service program for areas 2C, Southeast Alaska, and 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska including Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay.

Under the program, one of Smith's two boats was permitted because it operated during one of two qualifying years, 2004 and 2005, and during 2008. His second boat did not qualify, cutting Smith's business in half. He has appealed NMFS's decision. While the appeal is pending, Smith is eligible to receive an interim permit, but it hasn't arrived.

Smith expected notification of his appeal date to be mailed to him Jan. 29. He is yet to receive that notification, but is preparing nonetheless.

"I hired an attorney for myself, one familiar with fishery issues," said Smith.

He argues that captains who were in business while the program was being developed and continued to purchase business licenses, pay taxes and make investments in their charter businesses should at least be given nontransferable permits.

Nontransferable permits are issued to individuals holding Alaska Department of Fish and Game business owner licenses who authorized logbook fishing trips during the applicable time periods, reported five bottom fish logbook fishing trips or more during 2004 or 2005 and reported five halibut logbook fishing trips or more during 2008. Requirements for a transferable permit are the same except the business owner must have reported a minimum 15 fishing trips in 2004 or 2005 and a minimum 15 in 2008.

Smith has made arrangements to purchase a transferable permit from a captain he knows so that, whether he wins or loses his appeal, he'll be able to continue chartering.

The program raises other concerns. Some captains worry about the limitation requiring licensed guides to have a permit on board even when taking family, friends and neighbors that are non-paying clients fishing. Others who were denied permits are holding onto their businesses with hopes the program will be overturned or they can find a way around the regulation.

"They think they'll be able to run a free charter and collect money through another part of their business, but the way the rules are written, it can't happen," said Smith.

The newly formed Charter Operators of Alaska is gaining momentum in an attempt to stop the program, according to spokesperson Kent Haina of Homer. An attorney has been retained.

"We're still two weeks out from filing any kind of lawsuit or injunction," said Haina.

Lack of an interim permit could be viewed as critical to efforts to do away with the program.

"We can prove the government isn't complying with their own program. I'm supposed to have a permit in my hand tomorrow and I don't have one," Haina said Monday. "Something so simple as to give everyone on appeal a permit, they should be able to send that out no problem, but they haven't done that."

The interim permits are on the way, however.

"They were put in the mail yesterday," NMFS spokesperson Julie Speegle said Wednesday.

The charter halibut permit program isn't the only front charter operators are fighting. Haina said there is concern over a 37-inch, 17-pound maximum size limit on guided sport halibut caught in Southeast imposed recently by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The limit does not apply to non-guided anglers in Southeast, nor does it apply to guided or non-guided anglers in other areas of the state. Yet.

Haina recently participated in a teleconference regarding Senate Bill 24. Sponsored by Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, the bill seeks to establish a Sport Fishing Guide Services Board and develop licensing requirements for those involved in the industry.

Haina said he told the bill's sponsor during the teleconference that the legislation "couldn't have come at a worse time for the Alaska saltwater charter industry. This is really bad timing."

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