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U.S. Commerce, State departments don’t sign off on proposed reduction

1-fish halibut limit ruled out

Posted: Friday, March 02, 2007

After a meeting last Saturday between fishermen and the executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, some charter fishermen walked away feeling frustrated.

Thursday, the U.S. Department of State gave charter fishermen cause for celebration when it rejected proposed catch limits this summer for the Southeast and Southcentral charter fleet.

In a letter sent to IPHC on March 1, Reno Harnish, acting assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, told chairman James Balsiger that the United States did not accept its plan to limit charter-caught halibut to one a day from June 15-30 for Area 3A in Southcentral Alaska and from June 15-July 31 for Area 2C in Southeast Alaska. Because the IPHC acts under international agreements between the U.S. and Canada, the State Department and the Department of Commerce had to sign off on the IPHC proposals.

“We’re pleased we won this round,” said John Bondioli, a charter fisherman with Capt. B’s Alaska C’s Adventures.

Other restrictions could be imposed on the charter fleet, however. The National Marine Fisheries Service with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has started a federal rule-making process to consider charter-catch limits, said Sheila McLean, a public information specialist with NOAA in Juneau. A rule might be in place by June 1.

Bruce Leaman, IPHC executive director, said he respects NMFS’ ability to manage halibut catch limits for commercial fisheries.

“We hope they’ll do the same job of managing the catch limit for the recreational fisheries,” he said. “We’re assuming they’re going to take appropriate steps to bring the charter catch within the guideline harvest level limits.”

Balsiger said one option being considered is to keep the two fish a day limit, but require one fish be a larger minimum size, or trophy fish. Leaman hinted at last Saturday’s meeting that a change to the catch limit might be coming. Leaman said then that in conversations he had with officials in Washington, D.C., the State Department might modify the IPHC recommendations.

A standing room-only crowd of about 110 people — mostly sport-charter and commercial fishermen — listened politely at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center as he explained the IPHC’s recent decision to limit the charter catch in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.

Politeness turned to frustration in a question-and-answer period when fishermen tried to pin Leaman down on the specifics of the IPHC’s decision. Leaman echoed some of that frustration, particularly when he talked about the elephant in the room on the halibut allocation issue: reducing halibut mortality from bycatch.

“We’re frankly at a plateau in terms of action,” Leaman said.

Leaman visited Homer at the invitation of Don Lane, a longtime Homer commercial halibut fisherman, to talk about the IPHC process. Most of Leaman’s talk had to do with the science behind halibut — how the stock is assessed and how it’s managed. In doing so, he kept making a distinction: allocation decisions are made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The NPFMC is one of eight regional councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to oversee management of U.S. fisheries, with offices based in Anchorage.

As Leaman put it, IPHC decides the size of the pie, and NPFMC decides how it’s sliced. For the 95.5 millions pounds of halibut taken in 2006 by all groups, sport fishermen (including fish caught on charter boats) took 12 percent, commercial fishermen took 70 percent and bycatch was 13 percent.

A lot of the talk had to do with the biology of Pacific halibut and changes in its biomass. A satellite tracking study of halibut movement is changing a previously held belief that adult halibut generally return to the same areas each spring. The IPHC satellite tracking study saw greater level of movements.

That led to a new method of assessing halibut biomass by IPHC staff, looking at it as a single coastwide unit, instead of estimating the biomass for separate units, the so-called closed-area assessment. For 2007, though, the IPHC chose not to use the new method as it reviewed the new assessment model. In terms of catch limits, under the coastwide assessment model, the IPHC recommended 67 million pounds and for the closed-area assessment 66.28 million pounds. Its adopted limit was 65.17 million pounds.

A lot of the questions expressed frustration with issues like bycatch and the guideline harvest level — the number NPFMC came up with through its process for capping the sport-caught charter catch. One fisherman wanted to know why fisheries regulators weren’t focusing more on bycatch caused by trawlers targeting other species. NPFMC allows some groundfish fisheries to take a certain amount of halibut while fishing for species like Pacific cod.

“What’s being done about the draggers?” the fisherman asked. That question was returned to again by others.

Leaman said his perception was that regulators had hit a plateau in regulating bycatch. In 2006, the total bycatch from all fisheries was 4.8 million legal-sized fish and 7.2 million sublegal-sized fish. One thing he’s heard from NOAA is that information from onboard observers might not be strong enough to prosecute offenders.

He also noted that in Canada, tougher bycatch regulations work. There the halibut bycatch dropped from 1.2 million pounds to 200,000 pounds over one year. Leaman said Canadian fishermen were more willing to accept regulations.

Such regulations in the United States might be harder to enact, Leaman said.

“The political will is probably not there to do it now,” he said. One fisherman wondered if charter fishermen could use a strategy similar to trawlers.

“If we’re targeting other species and catch halibut, can we keep the halibut?” he asked, a joke that got loud laughter from the audience.

After the meeting, Lane said that reducing bycatch was one point he agreed upon with charter fishermen.

“If we could save 10 million pounds of bycatch, the commercial fishermen would benefit, the charter fishermen would benefit,” he said. “If the sport charter guys have a way to reduce bycatch, we’d love to hear about it.”

Lane cautioned that reduced bycatch wouldn’t necessarily result in a higher charter-catch allocation. Commercial fishermen have been paying for bycatch reduction through things like having observers on board.

“If there ever was a savings and it was framed in the context of ‘give it to the sport charter guys,’ there would be huge resistance,” he said.

The guideline harvest level and the information used to develop it also came under question — and fire.

“This is only a guideline,” said Donna Bondioli of Capt. B’s Alaska C’s Adventures.

The GHL for Southcentral Alaska, Area 3A, is 3.65 million pounds. The IPHC said the guided-sport harvest for Area 3A in 2006 was 3.9 million pounds, or 250,000 pounds over the GHL.

Bondioli questioned how the IPHC could justify its recommended limit on the charter fleet.

“Because that’s the council’s target,” Leaman said. “The council said ‘We want that target.’ Collectively, we (the IPHC) said, ‘We’re going to manage the targets.’”



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