Charter boat skippers soon could own shares in Alaska's annual halibut quota under a plan recommended Saturday by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
"I'm real pleased," said Bob Ward, secretary of the Homer Charter Association and a member of the council's advisory panel. "The fact that it was 8-3 tells me the council needed to do this."
The plan, which still must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce before it can take effect, would give charter skippers Individual Fishing Quotas similar to those already in place for commercial halibut fishers. It also would allocate the charter fleet a fixed share in the annual halibut quota.
"I was kind of glad to hear something going on, because that business has just been growing," said Kenai commercial fisher Steve Tvenstrup.
Commercial fishers long have called for a cap on the charter catch. That is because regulators figure the biologically acceptable halibut harvest each year, then subtract the sport catch before setting commercial quotas. Some commercial fishers fear a growing charter catch could take a big bite from the commercial fishery.
Charter skippers, though, have argued that capping the charter catch would set off a race for the fish. The charter season could close early, and skippers might have to cancel reservations booked months before.
Meanwhile, Kevin Duffy, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a member of the North Pacific council, said recently that there has been little growth the last few years in either the charter fleet or its catch.
In 1997, the council adopted charter guideline harvest levels equal to 125 percent of the 1995 charter fleet catch, leaving room for the industry to grow. It said there was no intent to cut the charter fishing season short.
If the charter catch exceeded the guideline harvest levels, it proposed, there would be restrictions the following year, such as reduced daily bag limits, to bring the catch in line. Last year, the council changed the GHL to 125 percent of the average charter catch from 1995 to 1999.
But the GHL plan left no way to increase the charter fleet share if sport-fishing demand increases, Ward said.
Under the IFQ plan the council recommended, charter fishers could simply buy commercial fishing IFQs.
Initially, though, no charter shares could be transferred to the commercial fishery, said Rob Bentz, assistant director of the Alaska Division of Sport Fish.
After three years, the North Pacific council could authorize sale of charter IFQs to the commercial fishery, but even then, only a quarter of the charter shares could be sold to commercial fishers. The rest would have to stay in charter hands.
The council also recommended capping the number of shares that could be owned by any one charter business. In the Gulf of Alaska, the cap would be .5 percent of the commercial fishing and charter total. In Southeast Alaska, it would be 1 percent.
"We didn't want Princess Cruises to come in and own everything," Ward said.
Under the present proposal, only charter skippers who operated and submitted Fish and Game logbooks in 1998 or 1999 and operated again in 2000 would be eligible for IFQs. Those who operated in 1995, 1996 and 1997 would receive more shares than newcomers.
Of the vote, Bentz said the three votes against it came from Duffy, sport-fishing advocate Bob Penney and council chair David Benton, a former Fish and Game official. Rather than IFQs, Fish and Game proposed a three-year moratorium on new entry to the charter fleet, combined with implementation of the GHL and expedited development of Local Area Management Plans (LAMPs) through the Alaska Board of Fisheries. LAMPS would address issues such as depletion of popular fishing areas and conflicts between user groups. The council rejected the moratorium 7-4.
Fish and Game fears that with IFQs, the price of a charter may rise, Benton said. Some charter skippers will sell their shares to other charter operators or to commercial fishers.
"In either case, that's one less charter operator participating than in the past," he said. "As the number of boats goes down and demand is constant or increases, the cost is going to rise. Nobody knows what will happen, but that's what the state envisions."
Ward discounted such fears. The council recommended allocating the charter fleet 125 percent of its average annual catch from 1995 to 1999. That works out to 14.11 percent of the combined commercial and charter catch in the Gulf of Alaska and 13.05 percent of the total in Southeast.
"They're giving all the charters more fish than they're taking today," Ward said. "What that's going to do is, without an immediate need for me to buy quota, there's no immediate need for me to raise prices."
The excess shares also will keep the price of a charter share low, he said.
They also could lead to expansion of the charter fleet in Cook Inlet, where many already complain of a shortage of halibut in popular near-shore fishing areas. Ward said that could be addressed with a LAMP.
The board plans public hearings this spring, including one April 25 and 26 in Homer, on LAMPs and federal subsistence halibut rules.
"We have a number of variables to work with," Ward said.
Charter and commercial fishing boats might be banned from fishing inside Kachemak Bay or within three miles of Ninilchik, he said. Boats more than 35-feet long might be banned from fishing halibut near shore. Or, charter and commercial boats could be banned from Kachemak Bay through July and allowed during August and September.
Tvenstrup said he has no problem with allocating charter boats 125 percent of their average annual catch from 1995 to 1999, but he fears charter skippers will try to shut longliners out of Cook Inlet.
"There's no sense even talking that way," he said.
The idea of commercial fishing IFQs was to lengthen the commercial season, allowing fishers to take better care of the catch and avoid fishing in dangerous weather. Forcing small longliners to fish the stormy Gulf of Alaska would put them in greater danger, he said.
"It's flying backward, to me," he said. "With the (small) amount of pressure that's in Cook Inlet now with longliners, there's no reason to limit any size of vessel. If the fish are depleted, look where the source is. I think you'll find a big percent are harvested by guided and unguided sport fishermen."
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