Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 6:41 PM on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fish council OKs change in IFQ program

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has approved a change to the halibut and sablefish IFQ program that will eliminate the use of hired skippers on quota shares purchased after Feb. 12, 2010.

As it stands now, IFQ holders who were original recipients of quota shares when the program began in 1995 can hire a skipper to fish their shares as long as they own at least 20 percent of the vessel that does the fishing. This has led to some vessel owners selling 20 percent of their boat to several IFQ holders who can stay home and collect a check.

The change only applies to quota shares purchased after the 2010 date. Anyone who is currently able to use a hired skipper for the pounds they own now can continue to do so for those pounds. Pounds acquired after the 2010 date will require the IFQ owner to go aboard the boat catching the pounds, regardless of their ownership stake in the vessel.

Jane DiCosimo, senior plan coordinator for the council, said the proposal came from an individual stakeholder in the industry, but the council was concerned about the amount of quota available for sale to crew and new entrants into the fishery.

"By allowing the hired skipper provision to not be limited into the future, those quota shares will continue to be held by those initial recipients who are no longer actively fishing on the vessels," she said. "That is counter to the basic design of the program for an owner-operated fleet."

This change also will put an end to corporations purchasing any future quota shares, DiCosimo said.

"Obviously they would not be allowed to acquire additional shares, because they must hire a skipper. We can't require a corporation to be on the boat."

Doug Bowen, owner of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer, said that if the idea was to free up quota for new entrants, it may backfire, at least in the short term, because the quota shareholders who are grandfathered into the 20 percent ownership model will be reluctant to turn loose of those shares.

"That quota that they held before February of last year, that's golden," he said. "They'll never sell it. They'll die with that quota."

If an IFQ holder who currently uses a hired skipper wanted to sell shares from one area and move to another, Bowen said, they would be highly reluctant to do so if it meant they had to have boots on deck in order to catch the pounds.

Bowen also pointed out that in the first year or two of the program, the council actually saw the benefit of allowing quota to be leased to vessel owners who did not qualify for shares of their own.

"In the first year or two, the council allowed for the leasing of (a certain percentage) of a person's quota as a way to help all the folks that didn't get any quota. They had a boat, had gear, but suddenly had no way to go fishing except to spend a fortune to buy quota, which they didn't have and didn't have any quota to use as collateral to borrow against," he said.

There may be some other changes to the program with regards to leasing quota in upcoming months, according to the council's DiCosimo.

Specifically, IFQ holders who claim 20 percent ownership of a vessel may have to show some documentation of the legitimacy of that ownership, such as helping pay for operating expenses, maintenance and other financial obligations that come with vessel ownership. However, that may be a legally murky area, although the enforcement staff is working on it.

Another change that the council is considering is a limit to how long an IFQ holder can have someone else fish their shares under a medical transfer, issued when shareholders have illnesses or injuries that prevents them from being on boats.

The issue, DiCosimo said, is that some individuals use the allowances in the regulations for hiring a skipper as a result of a medical disability indefinitely.

"They're allowed to get so many years worth of leasing out of a particular injury, and over the years the same individual is reporting different disabilities that allow them to continue to use hired skippers rather than, as the council intended, when someone is infirm and is unable to actively fish on board a vessel, that they were to sell their shares and retire, rather than use hired skippers as a retirement program."

DiCosimo said that it is a controversial and difficult issue for the council, because some of the shareholders come in to the council and express that the fishery is still their livelihood, even though their doctor says they're not well enough to be aboard the vessel anymore.

They may be told they have to sell their shares even though they were actively fishing for decades.

"But again, the council didn't mean it to be a retirement program, even though some elder fishermen have come to rely on it as such," she said.

DiCosimo also addressed the stark differences between the halibut and sablefish IFQ program and the crab rationalization program, which is designed to reduce the number of vessels participating, rather than keep them in the fishery.

The council had different social and economic goals, she said.

"Clearly, a large component of the halibut fleet in particular are small-boat owner-operators," she said. "Crab has always been a more industrial-type fishery. The vessels are bigger, they're in much more open water, the economics are different. It's just a completely different rationalization program."

The new regulation still has to go through a public comment period, which has not been scheduled yet, and then go to the Secretary of Commerce for his signature. DiCosimo said there is no chance that the rule will take effect at any point during the 2011 season.

The opening of the public comment period will be posted in the National Register.

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