After more than 10 years of debate, public testimony and delays, the halibut charter Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, process was set back once again earlier this month, this time by a letter from a federal fisheries official asking the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to confirm its support for the proposed program.
The letter delays the proposal at least another year and could lead to an overhaul of the plan or kill it entirely.
In the letter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Director William Hogarth cited “the passage of time,” “changed conditions in the fishery” and “the controversy surrounding the proposed charter vessel IFQ program” as reasons for the council to take another look at the proposal, which was supposed to be put on the federal registry for final public comments this summer.
Since its approval by the council in April 2001, the proposed IFQ program has languished on the desks of NOAA fishery officials and split the Homer charter industry on grounds of both economic interest and principle.
The program would allocate halibut shares to charter owners based on catch data collected in 1998 and 1999 Alaska Department of Fish and Game logbooks.
Captains who did not fish during those years or who fished on someone else’s boat would have to buy shares to continue operating.
Some view IFQs as the best way to ensure the future of what they see as a growing halibut fleet. Others say the plan will cut the fleet by as much as 30 percent, raise prices and stifle one of Homer’s economic engines.
Hogarth’s letter will be addressed in the council’s next meeting Oct. 3 in Anchorage.
Coincidentally, catch data from 2004 also will be presented at that meeting. Whether the data shows the charter fleet exceeded its current guideline harvest level, or GHL, as many believe it will, it likely will spark another round of heated debate about the future of the charter industry in the fishery.
“It’s going to be quite a big fight in October,” said Greg Sutter, secretary of the Alaska Charter Association.
Sutter is opposed to the IFQ proposal, even though he would qualify for shares in the plan. He has been busy fighting it and the current GHL system he views as unfair.
Under the GHL, charter boats are allowed to catch a set amount based on the total available harvest. This year the limit was about 3.65 million pounds statewide.
Most charter captains view their allotted share as inadequate, especially compared to a trawler halibut bycatch three times the charter GHL or the commercial catch of more than 50 million pounds annually.
Sutter said he hopes the Oct. 3 meeting will mobilize industry players to vote down IFQs and change or repeal the GHL.
“Repealing the GHL is going to be tough,” Sutter said. “But right now it’s crazy, we can’t live under the GHL.”
Bob Ward, a halibut charter IFQ proponent, agrees the GHL is flawed for charters, which is why he has worked to get the IFQ proposal approved.
“The whole problem with the GHL was it was a hard and fast cap with no allowance for more fish. Now the general sport fishing public will have to pay for less opportunity while the commercial fleet continues to get allocated the majority of the available stocks,” Ward said.
While many captains agree with Ward about IFQs, there is an increasingly vocal contingent who now oppose them.
Part of the problem, Ward says, is that many people came into the industry since 2001 when IFQs were proposed, knowing the IFQ proposal was in the works and knowing they wouldn’t be included.
Hogarth speaks of this delay in his letter, which essentially delays the process even further. And now the issue has become more contentious.
“My biggest question is why has this taken 12 years, it all started in May 1993,” Ward said. “Was our participation in the process, the thousands of hours of meetings, expense of attending and loss of time for business necessities all for nothing?”
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