HOMER -- When federal fishery managers voted last year to limit the annual harvest of halibut charter operators in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, they turned the charter industry on its head.
While the details of that decision are still being sorted out, it launched several hundred charter operators in Homer, Deep Creek and Ninilchik -- as well as those from Ketchikan to Kodiak -- in a new direction. When the final rules are adopted in April, the industry will be distinctly different than the one that Alaskans have been familiar with.
Among the possible changes are that charter clients can catch only one fish a day, while a sport fisher in his own boat could still catch two; that charter prices might double; that half-day fishing is eliminated; that Cook Inlet might be divided into exclusive zones for charters, personal boats and commercial longliners.
More likely, however, is that federal fishery managers will issue individual fishing quotas to charter operators, much like those in the commercial fishery.
"It's going to be a challenge," said Gary Ault, owner of Inlet Charters in Homer and a veteran of two decades in the business. "It's still a good living for Homer, a place with limited (work) options. But there are a lot of changes coming along."
The new direction of the charter business stems from a request nearly a decade ago by Southeast Alaska commercial halibut longliners to cap the charter catch in their region. In ports such as Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau, cruise ships were disgorging thousands of passengers every summer, some of whom elected to take half-day charter trips. The charter catch was on a steep upward trajectory that suggested it would soon exceed the commercial harvest.
It was a fairness issue, the longliners complained to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 1993. Their own harvest was limited -- why wasn't the charter catch? They didn't care what type of limit was approved, so long as the charter catch didn't rise forever.
Fearing that such allocation squabbles would soon pop up in Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Prince William Sound, the council included Southcentral Alaska charters in the discussions about a new management strategy. That brought in Anchor Point charter skipper Bob Ward, owner of A-Ward Charters. He now sits on the council's advisory panel, as well as the Halibut Charter Task Force.
And while Ward, too, is reluctant to embrace the changes, he said they are inevitable.
"People who are invested heavily in it after 15 or 20 years are very concerned about their investment, and where it stands in the future," he said.
The problem in Cook Inlet is not so much between charters and commercial fishers, Ward said, but in protecting the resource. There are more than enough boats to catch every fish available, he said, and something needs to be done to stem the effort before the fish are gone.
"The industry needs to address its growth and its future, and it definitely has an obligation to conservation and the best utilization of the halibut resource," Ward said.
Many charter operators in Cook Inlet would have preferred to start this new management era with a moratorium on new entrants into the fishery, and allowing only those already in the business to keep fishing.
The council nixed that idea, however, saying it would have done nothing to stop the original allocation battle. Instead, the council set limits on the annual charter harvest in both Southeast and Southcentral. Rather than establish a permanent poundage level, it created a floating cap that rises and falls with the halibut population. The cap is equal to 125 percent of the average charter harvest of 1995-99. This year charter operators in Area 3A, which includes Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Prince William Sound, can catch 3.9 million pounds.
As commercial fishers had hoped, the new guideline harvest level is based on halibut abundance. When the fish population dwindles, the charter limit will fall, just as the commercial harvest does -- with one big difference, Ward said. The charter catch will stair-step downward to soften the blow in years of big declines.
For example, if the International Pacific Halibut Commission reduces the central Gulf of Alaska (Area 3A) halibut quota by 15 percent or less, the charters' baseline quota will drop the same percentage. However, the council agreed to limit the charters' quota reduction to no more than 15 percent in the first year, and no more than 10 percent in subsequent years. Conversely, as halibut stocks rise, the charter quota will rise back to the baseline harvest level.
If charter fishers exceed their quota one year, the council will enact restrictions the following year to bring down the catch. Again, however, the council chose to stair-step the cutbacks. The first step would limit charter boats to one trip per day, which would reduce the annual catch by up to 10 percent, according to council estimates.
As additional restrictions are needed to bring the charter catch under its quota, the council would prohibit skippers and crew from fishing, limit a charter fisher to seven fish per year, then six, and finally to four. Piling on all those reductions should cut the Area 3A harvest by around 40 percent.
If even more cuts are needed to keep the charter fleet within its quota limit, the council would enact a one-fish bag limit on a month-by-month basis, starting with August.
Charter operators balked at the whole idea of having a season limit for their fleet, saying they need the assurance of a full season in order to stay in business. In lieu of the season quota and its attendant cutbacks when the limit is exceeded, Ward and others suggested individual fishing quotas, or IFQs.
The system has worked well for the commercial fleet, and Ward and other proponents believe individual quotas would allow operators better flexibility to stay within the overall catch limit. For one thing, IFQs would allow them to buy enough quota in times of low halibut abundance to keep fishing a full season.
Others think IFQs are a terrible idea, as many commercial longliners did in their fishery. They cringe at the idea of giving away the harvest rights to a resource and see IFQs as the first step in privatizing the resource. Some say Alaska's halibut charters could end up like Hawaii's, where the client pays to catch the fish but the skipper owns them.
The North Pacific council has been supportive of the concept, however, and will vote to either keep the overall harvest with its stair-step restrictions, or IFQs. Either would still need approval from the secretary of commerce to become law.
When Sean and Gerri Martin started North Country Charters more than two decades ago, the Homer Small Boat Harbor was home to perhaps a dozen charter boats. This year theirs will be one of 75 to 100 that charge out of the harbor every morning in search of "Hippoglossus stenolepis."
Other changes in the business are obvious. The fishing grounds are more crowded, competition for passengers is keen between companies as well as between ports, and government involvement in the business is higher than it's ever been.
"It's not as fun as it used to be," said Sean Martin.
Last summer, in fact, he took most of the season off, working only a day or two each week and letting an employee run the boat so he could spend more time with his family.
"It's a hard business," he said. "I thought about commercial longlining instead. I could probably make the same amount of money in a month or six weeks that I make now in 130 days."
His 50-year-old body rebelled at that idea, however, so Martin said he'll gear up to charter again for another year.
He'll also fish because this would be a crazy time to get out of the business. As a survivor of 20-odd years, Martin and other longtime operators stand to gain if IFQs are approved that charter operators could buy or sell.
Martin said he isn't entirely comfortable with the new direction his industry is going, but the change is necessary.
"There's too many people and not enough resource," he said. "I don't know what else to do."
He is no fan of government intervention, he said, but at least the IFQ program allows business owners like himself to buy the fishing rights they need in order to keep busy all summer.
Ault of Inlet Charters said he would have preferred the council do nothing for a while longer. The Southeast charter catch that was going through the roof in the early 1990s has slowed substantially, he said, and Homer has lost charter businesses in recent years.
"They should just hold on for five years" and then take another close look, Ault said. "If it becomes an issue, like stocks are declining, there's still time to limit us."
He sees the charter client population going through a change. As baby boomers get older, they aren't as interested in spending 10 hours on a bobbing boat. "They want a room, a deck chair and a view." That in itself is reducing demand for charter services.
Ault fears that IFQs will drive up the price of a halibut charter, simply because some, if not all, charter operators will be forced to buy quota shares in the future.
"If I can take fewer fish, I'm going to charge a premium for what I get," he said.
Ward argues the opposite point, that IFQs would allow him to keep his prices low by ensuring a steady flow of clients all summer.
"My clients know my price. If I don't have an increase in the cost of doing business, why would I increase my price?"
With all the proposed and ongoing changes, Cook Inlet could look completely different to a charter client in 10 years, especially if the area is zoned, as some have proposed. In Sitka, battles over halibut resulted in creation of a Local Area Management Plan, or LAMP, and so far the system seems to be working, according to all reports.
It acknowledges that the longtime sport and subsistence user should be able to catch a halibut fairly close to town, so charters and commercial boats are prohibited in that first zone.
Farther out are charters and small longliners, and lastly the big longliners.
Ward expects Cook Inlet will have such a program in a decade, with perhaps no longlining from Kachemak Bay northward, or at least none in the summer months. Kachemak Bay proper might be reserved just for sport and subsistence fishers, with no charters allowed. Perhaps Deep Creek boats will no longer be allowed to fish off the Anchor Point bluff, and all charters in Cook Inlet limited to one trip a day, he said.
So far, there has been little talk about LAMPs in Cook Inlet, but Ward and others are lobbying for seed money from Congress to pay for meetings.
That kind of management plan sounds good to Sean Martin, he said, just to keep the peace among halibut fishers of all sorts.
"We have to take care of the resource or nobody will have anything," he said.
Others are wary. Scott Meyer of the Department of Fish and Game in Homer said biologists are watching all these changes in the charter business closely, because history shows that fishers squeezed out of one business usually show up in another. If halibut clients are limited to one fish, what effect will that have on slow-growing rockfish, or migrating king salmon, he asked.
"It's so hard to sort out," he said.
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