Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:17 PM on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Extension won't delay plan's potential implementation

By Andrew Jensen
Morris News Service - Alaska

The comment period for a proposed halibut catch sharing plan has been extended, but not by enough time to delay its potential implementation in 2012.

In response to requests from some charter operators and groups for a 60-day extension — which would have effectively prevented it from taking effect in 2012 — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended the comment period by 15 days until Sept. 21.

That will put a time crunch on the National Marine Fisheries Service, the NOAA agency in charge of the regulatory process. NMFS, which published the draft rule July 22 for a 45-day comment period, is tasked with responding to the hundreds of comments now pouring in about the halibut CSP.

Glenn Merrill, NMFS Alaska region representative, announced the extension at a special House Fisheries Committee meeting Sept. 1 in Anchorage.

Each comment must be responded to when the final rule is published, and the extension means NMFS will be under pressure to have the process complete by the time the International Pacific Halibut Commission holds its interim meeting Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in Anchorage.

Under a treaty between the United States and Canada signed in 1923, the IPHC sets the total harvests for halibut from California to the Bering Sea. It is up to the federal governments of both countries to divide the allowable harvest among commercial and recreational sectors, and to then create management structures to ensure the quota is not exceeded.

At the interim meeting (which precedes the annual meeting in late January), the IPHC reviews survey data of the halibut stock, retrospective harvest reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for unguided and subsistence removals from the previous year, projections for the upcoming year charter harvest from ADF&G, and staff recommendations for the harvest quota.

If the final rule has not been published by the interim IPHC meeting, it is unclear how that would affect the ADF&G ability to project charter harvest without knowing the regulatory structure, or how that uncertainty may affect IPHC staff recommendations for harvest levels in 2012.

The IPHC annual meeting also will be in Anchorage Jan. 24 to Jan. 27.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which designed and approved the halibut CSP over 10 meetings spanning several years culminated by a final vote in October 2008, has expressed its desire for the rules to take effect in 2012.

The CSP approved by the council would split the halibut harvest as a percentage between charter and commercial — with a range of 83 percent to 86 percent allocated for commercial depending on abundance and region — and set default bag limits based on the amount of halibut available.

The plan also provides for charter operators to lease pounds from the commercial sector to provide additional fishing opportunity for their clients if the rule requires a bag limit of one fish or a size limit.

Because the CSP was not yet ready in 2011, the IPHC took steps independently to constrain the Southeast charter sector by approving a 37-inch size limit in addition to the one-fish bag limit already in place.

The IPHC instituted the size limit for Southeast to address chronic overages that have ranged from 400,000 pounds to 1.1 million pounds greater than the charter guideline harvest level since 2004.

At the House Fisheries Committee meeting Sept. 1, Alaska Charter Association board member Richard Yamada argued that the IPHC has been allowing the commercial sector to overharvest halibut while the stock is in a declining trend, and that those overages are far greater than the charter sector.

The IPHC has a 20 percent target harvest rate for the exploitable halibut biomass (longer than 32 inches), but its 2011 annual report stated the harvest rate in Southeast has exceeded 50 percent in recent years. Yamada said the commercial sector accounts for about 78 percent of that overage between 2007 and 2010.

Commercial halibut representatives, which included Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, point to the severe cuts they've endured in that time. Although Yamada suggested it should have been cut even more, Southeast commercial quota has been slashed by 79 percent from 10.6 million pounds in 2005 to 2.33 million in 2011.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, noted the increasing price of halibut during the declining harvest period. Johnson suggested cutting the commercial allocation would boost the price and therefore benefit the industry.

In Southcentral Alaska, charter operators and the hospitality industry in general are concerned about how the proposed rule could affect them based on the status of the halibut stock in 2011.

Had the CSP been in place this year, both Southeast and Southcentral would have seen the charter allocation cut by about 31 percent, or 1.4 million pounds; in Southcentral, the current two-fish of any size bag limit would have been cut to one of any size.

Although it is certain Southcentral would have been on a one-fish limit in 2011, it is not yet known if anglers fishing out of Homer or Seward will be on a one-fish limit if the CSP does take effect in 2012.

The combined commercial/charter harvest in 2011 was 18.1 million pounds.

At a biomass of 20 million or more pounds for Southcentral, the default bag limit is for two fish with one required to be less than 32 inches.

There may still be unanswered questions at the IPHC interim meeting if the final rule hasn't been published, but survey data should give a better indication of what the bag limits might be for the charter sectors in Southeast and Southcentral if the halibut plan takes effect in 2012.

However, as charter operators noted to the House Fisheries Committee, not knowing what management structures will be in place for the next season until November or January when trips typically are booked years in advance threatens their business just as much as possible cuts in allocation or bag limits.

Andrew Jensen is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.