Industry ponders future

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

Federal managers are considering Individual Fishing Quotas for Alaska halibut charter boat owners, a Homer skipper said, and the eventual goal is to allow halibut IFQs to be bought and sold between the commercial and charter fleets.

But Bob Ward, secretary of the Homer Charter Association, said there should be restrictions.

An IFQ program for commercial halibut fishers has been in place since 1995. Under proposals now before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Ward said, charter IFQs initially would comprise no more than 15 percent of the total. The market value of commercial IFQs is well established, he said, but it will take time to determine the market price of charter IFQs.

"Don't drop the babes into the wolves," he said. "We're thinking of restricting commercial to charter transfers for one to three years. We have to get used to it. We need the consolidation to get the right-sized fleet. ... We have to establish a value on what the charter quota is worth without the influence of the commercial fleet."

Once the council institutes charter IFQs, he said, profitable charter operators will buy out marginal operators, leading to consolidation and an increase in the efficiency of the charter fleet.

Eventually, the market will determine whether halibut IFQs are worth more to commercial fishers or to charter skippers. To preserve sport-fishing access, Ward said, it may be necessary to limit the number of charter IFQs that could be sold to commercial fishers.

The crowded Cook Inlet fishery raises additional concerns, he said.

"We may let you transfer commercial quotas to charter boats in Area 2C (Southeast Alaska), but we may freeze it in Cook Inlet because of the crowding at Deep Creek -- because there are too many charter boats in Cook Inlet," he said. "We all agree on that -- customers, commercial fishermen, charters, non-charter fishermen. There are close to 600 charters total operating from Homer, Anchor Point and Deep Creek."

The North Pacific council is considering a range of possible restrictions on the transfer of IFQs between the commercial and charter fleets, said Jane Di Cosimo, a fishery biologist on the council staff. However, she said, any restrictions the council imposes likely would apply to all of Southeast Alaska or all of the Gulf of Alaska (Area 3A). Local restrictions would come under Local Area Manage-ment Plans enacted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, she said.

Ward said Cook Inlet charter operators have made several local management proposals to the state board. Consolidation after IFQs will increase efficiency, but it will not reduce fishing effort in Cook Inlet, he said. So, there may be a need for limited entry to the Cook Inlet charter fleet.

"We're looking perhaps at a Local Area Management Plan to limit the number of operators on Cook Inlet," he said. "We would have a restriction that you could only sell quota shares outside Cook Inlet."

The local plan also might require banning large commercial longline boats from fishing halibut inside Cook Inlet, he said.

"We may have to take a good look at what's available here ... and make sure we manage the effort against the carrying capacity. We may have to put the big boys offshore," he said. "That would be in a Local Area Management Plan. We'd have to get together with Seldovia, Port Graham, Nanwalek and maybe even Anchorage."

Ninilchik commercial fisher Dave Martin said he does not think the sale of commercial IFQs to the Cook Inlet charter fleet should be allowed. The charter fleet has depleted near-shore fisheries, he said. Meanwhile, many commercial boats fish halibut offshore in the Gulf of Alaska. Transferring commercial IFQs to charters would transfer effort from offshore to Cook Inlet and increase near-shore depletion, he said.

Meanwhile, kicking commercial boats out of Cook Inlet would do little to address near-shore depletion, he said. When the council instituted IFQs for commercial fishers, many of the fishers who worked small boats in Cook Inlet did not qualify for shares, he said, so the Cook Inlet commercial catch has declined substantially.

Scott Meyer, a fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, said the commercial fleet took 858,000 pounds of halibut from Cook Inlet in 1996, while sport fishers, charter and non-charter, took 3.2 million pounds. Charter boats accounted for 60 percent of the Gulf of Alaska sport catch. A more recent comparison was not immediately available.

Martin said he and other small-boat commercial fishers do fish halibut in Cook Inlet.

"But the last thing I'm going to do is set where the charter guys are, because they go to the same hole every day all summer long. You have to go someplace that hasn't been fished so long," he said.

Martin said he used to fish where the charter boats do now.

"Some guys still do, and they should be allowed to continue," he said.

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