Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:08 PM on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Charters launch protest

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

Making good their threat, Homer halibut charter captains on Friday began withdrawing memberships in the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, refusing to sell tickets for the chamber-sponsored Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby and discouraging clients' support of the derby.

The Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is calling a general membership meeting this Sunday, August 28th at 7pm at Land's End to discuss the final wording of a letter to be written commenting on the Catch Share Plan. The meeting is open to the public, but all MEMBERS of the Chamber are especially encouraged to attend so that they can exercise their right to vote on this issue.

"We're disappointing people by not having (derby tickets) available, but if the chamber won't support us, I can't support them," said Dave Morris of Bob's Trophy Charters.

The actions follow an Aug. 18 meeting when the chamber board of directors determined it would not comment formally on a halibut catch share plan being considered by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. The vote failed to obtain the necessary percent to pass a motion "to draft a letter that opposed the catch sharing plan as currently written and sent to state and federal legislators and (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) a letter with the following points: request a comprehensive economic analysis to be completed, extend the current comment period and (request) that the catch sharing plan be aligned with the current GHL (guideline harvest level)."

A 75 percent majority of the board was required for approval of the motion. Voting in support of it were Diane Borgman, Don Cotogno, Janna Davis, Mike Dye, Jim Lavrakas, Robert Letson and Pat Melone. In opposition were Don Lane, Maggie McCormick, Kate Kitchell and Gary Squires. Board vice president Josh Tobin was absent. Because her vote would not have changed the outcome, board president Holly VanPelt refrained form voting.

NOAA's plan, as written, would give the guided halibut charter fleet a specific percentage of the allowable catch as set annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Depending on the amount, charter fishermen would be allowed one fish a day, two fish with one less than 32-inches long or, as is currently allowed, two fish of any size. The allowable catch could be different for Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, and Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska, which includes Homer and Cook Inlet. The proposed plan, scheduled to go into effect in 2012, was created to prevent overharvesting of halibut, according to NOAA Fisheries, and makes accommodations for flexibility for charter and commercial fishermen. A 45-day comment period began July 21.

Previously, the chamber board designated the topic a "sensitive issue." As directed by bylaws pertaining to sensitive issues, the board held a public informational meeting on the halibut proposal Aug. 12. NOAA representatives Glenn Merrill and Rachel Baker were present to explain the plan and to answer questions.

Fearing a possible reduction in the daily allowable catch as proposed by the a plan, 37 halibut charter operators signed a petition last week requesting the chamber's board of directors join them in opposing the plan. If a "clear and concise oppositional stance" was not taken, petition signers threatened to withdraw their chamber memberships and support of the derby.

"We're hearing from a lot of members," Monte Davis, chamber executive director, told the Homer News. "It literally started Friday morning. We had seven or eight members in the lobby pull their membership, pull their brochures and turn in their derby tickets. That continued throughout the day."

Davis persuaded some members not to resign immediately "because my point is if we're a membership-based organization, now is not the time to quit. Now is the time to participate," said Davis. "It's almost like saying 'I hate the government so I'm not going to vote anymore.'"

Board members voting against the motion at the Aug. 18 meeting did so in support of the chamber "as a business organization that supports all of us in a growing community," said Mitchell, a past president of the chamber who is active in the chamber's Marine Trades and Services program. "We did not support one (industry) over another. ... I voted for the Homer Chamber of Commerce that has been in existence since 1948 and has continued to grow because it supported economic growth and has not taken sides with anybody."

Morris distributed copies of the petition to board members prior to Thursday's meeting, as well as presented and spoke about the petition during the meeting. Attached to it were estimated financial impacts if the catch share plan resulted in a one-fish limit and the possibility of a resulting 50 percent decline in halibut fishermen coming to Homer. David Bayes of Deep Strike Sportfishing helped prepare the numbers. The total annual loss, by their calculations and taking into account meals, beverages, lodging, rental vehicles and fuel, shipment of fish and derby ticket: $9.04 million.

"Those numbers may not be the most factual, but they're a start and no one else has done anything," said Morris. "I don't think the community could stand a $9 million hit."

Sean and Gerri Martin of North Country Charters were among those signing the petition, but "my husband and I are still trying to figure out what we want to do," said Gerri Martin of their course of action following the chamber board's "disappointing" vote. "(The board) abided by their bylaws, but the results weren't what everybody wanted."

Martin said she is uncertain the response promised by the petition is "a constructive way to do it, but I believe in the solidarity with my fellow charter members."

Some of that solidarity comes from outside the Homer community.

"I was informed that the Homer Chamber of Commerce actually voted not to take a stand against this issue, so I immediately called and resigned my membership because I just can't believe that the chamber could be totally asleep at the wheel on this issue," said Brian Emard of Anchor Point who, along with his wife, Janet, owns Anchor River Lodge, offering lodging and charter fishing. "This has the potential to devastate the local economy of Homer."

The withdrawal of memberships and derby ticket sales could be devastating to the chamber and visitor center. Approximately 65-70 percent of the chamber's membership is directly in the visitor industry, 40 percent of its budget is based on membership and 35 percent of the budget comes from gaming net proceeds, which include the halibut derby and the winter king salmon derby, said Davis.

"There's no question that should we continue the way we're going, if all of the people who have said they will resign do resign, we may have to redesign the entire chamber of commerce and visitor center," said Davis. "A lot of the charter captains have all said that if we don't stand for them on this issue, they will no longer support the chamber. The thing about it is, a lot of other people are standing behind them on this one. This is a lose-lose for the chamber, no matter what."

VanPelt is working to schedule an emergency meeting of the board of directors. She urged chamber members to attend.

"Whenever anybody has a concern, we always encourage them to attend board meetings and come in and talk to the executive director," said Van Pelt.

Participation also is the key of Davis' message.

"I would happily point out to anybody that the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center through the years has done a really good job promoting Homer not just to Alaska visitors, but to the Lower 48 as well. It is the old 'strength in numbers' adage. So, if we lost all these people as members, we will have weakened the entire community," said Davis. "If you quit now, you lost your voice."

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