Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:34 PM on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Court date set for halibut charter operators

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

A move to stop National Marine Fisheries Service's new limited entry program for halibut charter operators in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska gets its first day in U.S. District Court April 26.

The hearing will address a complaint and a motion for a preliminary injunction filed April 4 by the Charter Operators of Alaska, Alaska's Kodiak Island Resort, Capt. Allen Walburn of Larsen Bay, Crystal Bay Lodge in Petersburg and Capt. Nicolas Ausman of Coer D'Alene, Idaho. The plaintiffs are being represented by D. Kent Safriet of Hopping Green and Sams in Tallahassee, Fla.

Defendants named in the filing are Gary W. Locke, secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce; Jane Lubchenko, NOAA administrator; and Eric C. Schwabb, NMFS administrator.

According to Kent Haina of Homer, spokesperson for Charter Operators of Alaska, the case will be heard by Emmett Sullivan, the same judge that presided over the corruption trial of the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

"If we get an injunction, that's great, but there's a long way to go from there," said Haina. "If granted, it will stop the rule in its place until it can be argued out in court. If it's denied, we'll have to regroup. We'll have to make some decisions at that point."

According to the filings, 854 guided charters operated in 2008 in the Area 2C, southeast, and Area 3A, southcentral. To qualify for a permit under the NMFS program, which went into effect Feb. 1, operators had to demonstrate a specified amount of activity in 2004 or 2005, as well as 2008. A total 327 charter businesses failed to meet the specified threshold.

An appeal process is in place, during which appealing operators are granted an interim permit to continue chartering on a limited basis. Some qualifying operators are offering their permits for sale. A listing of for-sale permits at www.seagoalaska.org indicates price tags ranging into the five figures.

The court filings ask for a review of the program. Charges made against the program point to a conflict with the Halibut Act of 1982 since the program curtails growth of the guided sport fishing capacity but does not limit harvest. It also charges that non-qualifying operators will be unable to honor reservations, pay expenses and meet debt obligations due to loss of revenue.

A growing number of businesses and individuals have added their names to the battle against the NMFS program. Online and paper petitions have drawn more than 1,500 signatures. Haina said the first level of support for the legal battle is coming from charter operators, with clients providing a second level.

"Clients are being very supportive with the petition, letter writing and moral support, but financial support is very critical if an injunction is granted," said Haina.

The granting of an injunction, if it happens, could boost financial support. At the same time, it increases the need.

"A legal battle is going to be very costly, but compared to buying a permit for $70,000, it's a drop in the bucket," said Haina.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.