Halibut charter IFQs hit front burner

North Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings under way today

Posted: Monday, April 09, 2001

A rush of legislative opposition to giving charter skippers individual shares in the annual halibut quotas has not dissuaded proponents of the plan.

"Without a doubt, we need to move forward with these individual fishing quotas," said Tim Evers, president of the Deep Creek Charter Boat Association.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is slated to make a final decision on the proposal for halibut charter IFQs when it meets this week at the Anchorage Hilton. Committees will discuss the proposal today and Tuesday, said Jane Di Cosimo of the council staff. The council will take public testimony and consider the proposal from Wednesday to Saturday.

If it rejects halibut charter IFQs, Evers said, the charter fleet will be stuck with the guideline harvest level (GHL) it passed in 1997.

Under that plan, which still has not been approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, if the charter catch exceeds the GHL one year, there will be restrictions the following year, such as reduced bag limits, to cut the charter catch.

"And that's the worst of all things," Evers said.

Bob Ward, secretary of the Homer Charter Association, said the GHL would leave no way, short of additional council action, to allocate more halibut to the charter fishery if recreational demand increases. Under IFQs, though, charter fishers could buy additional quota shares from commercial fishers.

But the charter halibut IFQ proposal has drawn high-powered opposition.

n Senate Resources Committee chair John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, House Resources Committee co-chair Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, Fish Caucus chair Sen. Alan Austerman and Special Committee on Fisheries co-chairs Reps. Gary Stevens and Peggy Wilson opposed halibut charter IFQs in an April 2 letter to the North Pacific council.

They acknowledged the need to regulate halibut charters, but said Local Area Management Plans (LAMPs) developed through the state Board of Fisheries would be a better method than a statewide program modeled after the IFQs already in existence for commercial fishers.

A program developed for commercial fishers may not work for the charter industry, they wrote, and what works for Sitka may not work for Kodiak or Homer.

While charter skippers argue the need for public access to the resource, access also is important to commercial fishers and those who buy commercially caught halibut, they wrote.

n Senate President Rick Halford, House Speaker Brian Porter, Rep. Eldon Mulder and Sen. Dave Donley wrote a letter asking Gov. Tony Knowles to oppose halibut charter IFQs, support the development of LAMPs through the Board of Fisheries and ask the secretary of Commerce to reject the GHL.

Even the council's analysis says IFQs will raise the price of a halibut charter and reduce recreational access, they wrote, and the right to harvest a fish would belong to the charter skipper, not the angler. Restricting access to federally managed halibut would force new charter skippers to target state-managed species such as salmon and lingcod, they wrote, and that could have significant impacts.

"We feel the potential impact to coastal Alaskan communities has not been adequately assessed and could be significant," they wrote. "... We feel tourism could be negatively impacted by this proposal."

n Kevin Duffy, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who holds a voting seat on the North Pacific council, said the state opposes halibut charter IFQs, favors the GHL proposal and favors development of LAMPs for implementation by February 2003. There are too many unanswered questions about passing IFQs for a sport fishery, he said.

n The Board of Fisheries opposes halibut charter IFQs, Dan Coffey, its chair, wrote in March 28 letter. He said board members have discussed the issues and "believe that the adoption of IFQs would not be in the public interest ... . Frankly, we see no compelling need to give a public resource to a private group of individuals ... ."

That is particularly true given a joint protocol under which the board is to work with competing user groups to write consensus LAMPs for all species, then forward those to the North Pacific council for approval of provisions concerning halibut, Coffey wrote.

The board plans public hearings this spring, including one April 25 and 26 in Homer, on LAMPs and federal subsistence halibut rules. Coffey said he hopes the board can send its recommendations to the council in 2002.

"If the council approves IFQs for the halibut charter boat operators at its April meeting, it will undermine the joint protocol and the public process," he wrote.

"That's what he said," said Board of Fisheries member Ed Dersham. "I know Chairman Coffey consulted with other board members before he wrote that letter. I was out of state. "

Dersham, who runs halibut charters off Anchor Point, said the board should stay neutral on halibut charter IFQs.

As a charter operator, he said, he has mixed feelings. If halibut stocks decline as much as biologists predict, he said, the GHL proposal could lead to bag limits of one halibut per day for guided anglers and two per day for unguided anglers.

"That is potentially disastrous for guided anglers, guides and the economy," he said.

Dersham said charter IFQ rules could be written to address issues such as who owns charter-caught halibut and the potential to drive up charter prices. Still, he said there are so many unanswered questions that he is not ready to support charter IFQs.

"But I fear the GHL greatly. I think something more needs to be done," he said.

Evers said it is too bad there was no moratorium on new charter boats when the council adopted the GHL and too bad the Board of Fisheries has not acted on Cook Inlet LAMP proposals that included a moratorium on new charter operations. But there are too many problems facing the industry now -- near-shore depletion of halibut stocks, over-capitalization of the charter fleet, instability in the industry and allocation disputes -- to delay action. It could take five years to pass a Cook Inlet LAMP, he said.

"It doesn't make sense to let a whole bunch of new people keep entering the charter fishery," he said. "We can do the LAMP to address near-shore depletion after we implement IFQs."

Duffy said that along with the GHL proposal, the state favors a moratorium on new entry to the Southcentral and Southeast Alaska charter fleets. The moratorium would be triggered for either area only if the charter catch reached the area's GHL.

That should leave room for growth in the charter industry, he said. Last year, the council recommended setting the GHL at 125 percent of the average charter catch from 1995 to 1999. The year 2000 Southcentral and Southeast charter landings fell 36 percent below the respective GHLs, he said, and there has not been much growth during the last few years in the charter fleet or its catch.

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