Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 5:03 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Commission cuts halibut quotas dramatically

The International Pacific Halibut Commission stuck to staff recommendations for the 2011 quotas at its annual meeting last week, dealing a substantial blow to both Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf of Alaska.

The quotas are as follows:

• Area 2C, Southeast Alaska: 2.33 million pounds, down 47 percent from the 2010 quota of 4.4 million pounds;

• Area 3A, central Gulf of Alaska: 14.36 million pounds, down 28 percent from 20 million pounds in 2010;

• Area 3B, western Gulf of Alaska: 7.52 million pounds, down 25 percent from 9.9 million pounds in 2010;

• Area 4A, eastern Aleutian Islands: 2.41 million pounds, up 4 percent from 2.33 million pounds in 2010;

• Area 4B, western Aleutians: relatively unchanged at 2.18 million pounds; and

• Areas 4CDE, Bering Sea: 3.72 million pounds, up 4 percent from 3.58 million pounds in 2010.

Some commission members noted the difficulty of the meeting and the hard decisions that had to be made.

Prior to the meeting, the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association sent the commission a letter saying its membership was "staggered" by the cuts recommended by staff.

"We are extremely concerned by the apparent failure of the existing stock assessment and apportionment strategy to bring stability to the fishery," it read.

ALFA also questioned why there was a 2 percent increase in the quota for Canadian waters, area 2B, and a 47 percent drop in Southeast Alaska, area 2C, "only a line in the water away."

The IPHC blames the cuts on very slow halibut growth rates in recent years, where 20 years ago a 15-year-old halibut would grow to 100 pounds, and now only reaches 35 pounds, as well as declining catch rates coastwide.

There also was a change in policy, from a method called "slow up fast down," which would take the original stock assessment number and cushion the suggested drop in quota by taking only half the difference from the previous year's catch limit, to a method called "slow up full down," which just takes the stock assessment and makes it the recommendation.

ALFA took issue with that, as well.

"This marks at least the fifth year in a row of constantly changing harvest policies, apportionment formulas and data sets, with apparently more to come next year," the letter read. "This constant ad-hoc approach to halibut management is having significant negative impacts and undermining the credibility of halibut management in the eyes of many stakeholders."

The commission has also made a change to the charter harvest in Southeast in an attempt to stop their chronic over-harvest, by prohibiting them from keeping any fish over 37 inches, about 17 pounds dressed. Charter clients in Southeast are also restricted to one halibut per day.

The Southeast charter fleet has exceeded its catch limit every year since 2004, peaking in 2008 when it went over by 106 percent. The charter allocation has not been reduced for two years, despite the cuts in commercial quotas. The 2011 charter allocation is 788,000 pounds.

The halibut season is scheduled to begin March 12 and end Nov. 18.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources got an earful at a hearing last month to determine the fate of a petition to designate wetland and tributaries of the Chuit River, across Cook Inlet, as unsuitable for coal strip mining.

In a packed room of 150 people were groups bussed in from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley and flown in from affected villages across Cook Inlet. Others drove icy roads through blowing snow from other areas of the Kenai Peninsula in order to testify.

Of the 150 attendees, 130 testified. Of those, only one spoke in favor of the project, and that was the proposed Chuitna coal mine project manager, Dan Graham.

Graham said the project is based on the premise that successful mine operations and a healthy fish population are not mutually exclusive.

"They can and must co-exist, and if it can't be shown that they can co-exist, then we wouldn't expect to get our permit approvals," he said.

The current proposal would excavate 11 miles of Middle Creek, a Chuitna tributary, down to a depth of 350 feet, with the de-watering expected to pump 7 million gallons of water and mine waste into the Chuitna system daily.

Testimony from the other 129 people followed similar themes: Trading coal to ship to China that will mostly benefit Outside corporations for salmon that benefit all Alaskans is a bad deal; it is a dangerous precedent for resource development in the state to allow mining in a salmon stream; there is no evidence from mining operations anywhere that a salmon stream can be returned to its natural state after the miners leave; burning coal is environmentally harmful; and destruction of the delicate, sensitive, and beautiful ecosystem of the Chuitna drainage must be avoided at any cost.

Setnetter John Mario summed up the sentiment of many others. "We need fish more than we need coal. I vote for the fish. If you want to find a place not to put a coal mine, go there," he said.

Many chided state regulators for only holding only one hearing on the subject, on a busy weeknight at a time when many people were not able to attend due to work, in Kenai, far away from many of the concerned citizens, saying it made it look like it was a done deal and the DNR was not really interested in hearing comments. There has since been a hearing scheduled to take place in Tyonek, one of the villages affected by the proposed mine.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.