Concerns about NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service's new program limiting halibut charter operations in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska have aired recently on radio and television and in newspapers. Charter Operators of Alaska, an organization leading the protest against the regulation, isn't ready to stop there.
Since the program went into effect Feb. 1, complaints about it have been filed with the U.S. Small Business Administration's ombudsman and a growing number of individuals have added their names to a petition launched last week and destined for President Obama, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell.
"We have a case officer assigned to handle our issue and they're taking all our complaints over to NOAA and asking for answers," said Kent Haina of Homer, spokesperson of Charter Operators of Alaska.
Haina said individual business owners impacted by the new regulation also are filing complaints with the SBA.
"The more ancillary businesses that get on board, the better for everyone," said Haina. "It has to come from other sources, not just charters. Getting people to take this first step is really difficult, we're finding, but we're moving along slowly, but surely."
Charter operators in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, areas described as 2C and 3A, who fished a minimum number of fishing trips during 2004 or 2005 and 2008 are being granted permits. There are transferable and nontransferable permits, determined by the number of trips the charters logged.
It has been estimated by NMFS that applications for 300 charter businesses will be denied permits. A denial can be appealed. Until a final decision is made on the appeal, interim permits are being issued which allow the operator to continue chartering, but with a maximum number of four clients per trip.
According to Jose Mendez of the SBA national ombudsman's office in Washington, D.C., 17 separate complaints filed as of Monday are being addressed through the Federal Agency Comment Process.
"Anytime a small businessperson feels they have been treated unfair, unjust or (subject to) excessive enforcement, they can come to our website and launch a complaint against a federal agency," said Mendez.
Once a complaint is filed, it is delivered exactly as filed to a senior official of the agency in question, with the agency's response due to SBA within 30 business days.
"As soon as we get the response, we get back to the business person and let them know the response," said Mendez.
The ombudsman's involvement doesn't guarantee a positive response.
"Sometimes they seem like they cannot read. By that I mean they answer something else and don't even answer our question. That's because they don't want to answer the question," said Mendez.
If the complaint is unsatisfactory to the businessperson, there is an option of asking the ombudsman to try again. Mendez estimated that in 99 percent of the complaints, the agencies believe they are correct and small business is wrong.
"In this category, I think we have a good number of folks that are being affected by this," said Mendez, who already has notified NOAA "to be aware of something coming like an avalanche."
As of Monday, almost 500 individuals had signed an online petition aimed at sending the message "that government actions that cost hundreds of Americans their jobs and deny anglers access to a resource that belongs to all Americans is unacceptable." In addition to the online version, at least two printed versions are being carried to sportsmen shows around the country.
"The initial goal was 1,000 signatures," said Haina. "I'm optimistic that paper versions that go out will generate quite a bit of interest. It takes a bit of time to go viral. That doesn't happen overnight. We just have to keep supporters e-mailing clients."
Notified of the charter operators' concerns over the new ruling, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, has requested the Senate Resources Committee to hold a hearing about the issue to help lawmakers decide how the state can respond.
For updates from Charter Operators of Alaska and a link to the petition, visit www.charteroperatorsofalaska.org. The SBA Ombudsman's office can be found at www.sba.gov/ombudsman.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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