New requirements for halibut charter operations will cut the fleet by more than a third in Southcentral Alaska next year.
Jessie Garrett of the National Marine Fisheries Services Restricted Access Management program said that halibut charter companies will need to prove that their business operated in either 2004 or 2005 and 2008 to receive a permit to carry anglers. The boat operators must have continuously owned the business throughout this period of time.
The new rule, which takes effect next February, will eliminate 34 percent of the charter businesses in Regulatory Area 3a and 43 percent in area 2c. The regulatory areas span from the central Gulf of Alaska to the southeast portion.
NMFS fisheries specialist Rachel Baker said that charter boats comprise 10 percent of the halibut removal in area 3a. Commercial fishermen harvest approximately 70 percent of the species taken from the area. In 2c, charter operations remove 19 percent, compared to commercial fishermen's 59 percent. Baker said that subsistence fishers, unguided sport fishermen and others make up the rest.
Denied applicants can appeal the decision, however. She said that the agency will grant permits if boaters prove that unforeseeable circumstances caused them to cease operations. This exception can only cover one year. She said clemency will be granted if appellants prove something like an engine malfunction, health problems or a family tragedy kept their business off the water.
Anything avoidable, such as switching occupations, will not result in a successful appeal, according to Garrett.
"Let's say gas is too expensive and you chose to do something else," she said. "That's your choice; therefore you're ineligible."
Soldotna Bed and Breakfast Lodge and Alaska Fishing Charter owner Steve Anderson said that he sold his charter business for a brief period, but recently bought it back. His application for a permit was denied because he hadn't owned the business continuously. Anderson is concerned that the decrease in available halibut trips will hurt the tourism industry.
"Most people who come to my lodge want to salt water fish at least one or two days," he said.
"If people can't get a seat on a charter boat some of them won't come here," said Winter King Charters owner Rex Murphy.
Murphy, founding member of the Alaska Charter Association, expects an uptick in his profits next season because there will be less competition. He's concerned that there will be a drop in quality amongst charters, though.
"Competition is better for a consumer because it breeds a quality product," he said. "Charters won't improve their businesses because there's no need to."
Murphy speculated that charter businesses may begin to send clients out in skiffs with directions to halibut hot spots and GPS units, which he considers unsafe.
Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council Executive Director Shanon Hamrick admittedly chose her words carefully when discussing the issue.
"There's some concern that it will limit seats available, but there's plenty of availability to go around," she said.
The price spike will decrease in-state tourism more than vacationers from the Outside, according to Hamrick. Alaskans tend to fish for subsistence purposes as opposed to sport fishing.
"Now they have to weigh the cost of travel and a charter against what they're bringing home," she said.
She doesn't think that the shrinking of the fleet will decrease competition as much as Murphy predicts, however.
Baker said that charter companies can meet consumer demand if they add additional fishing trips to their daily schedule.
Ron Ray, owner of the Moose Creek Lodge, said that increased price for halibut boats will put a strain on his customers, but the halibut bag limit concerns him more.
"Who wants to go through all that for one fish?" he said.
Tony Cella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Homer News contributed to this report.
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