Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:48 PM on Wednesday, December 14, 2011

North Council keeps 2-fish limit for Southcentral halibut charters

By Andrew Jensen
Alaska Journal of Commerce

With potentially drastic harvest cuts on the horizon in 2013, the battle over the declining halibut resource continued at the latest meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Homer and other Southcentral charter captains got some breathing room for 2012, with no changes in bag limits.

Although Southcentral charter anglers took a cut in their guideline harvest level, charter anglers will keep a two fish of any size daily bag limit. Skipper and crew retention will also still be allowed. The North Council followed a guideline harvest level, or GHL, recommended earlier by International Pacific and Halibut Commission staff last month, cutting the charter allocation from 3.65 million pounds to 3.1 million pounds in 2012. The projected charter catch is about 10 percent less than the GHL.

"I would love to say we're thrilled," said Homer Chamber of Commerce executive director Monte Davis. "It is a relief to know the charter fishery and personal fishery will be a two-fish limit next year. Conservation has to come first. Down the road we are trying to prepare for what at this point seems inevitable."

Davis said the chamber's Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby will be making some major changes, with a move away from awards for large fish. The chamber board meets today to approve a report by the derby committee outlining those changes.

Greg Sutter, a Homer charter captain and president of the Alaska Charter Association said he was glad to hear the North Council hearing the concerns of charter interests.

"It was a very positive meeting with the North Council," said "The council was listening to all sides and it made a balanced decision concerning the catch sharing plan and the adjustments they need to move it forward."

Over the better part of two days at the Anchorage Hilton Dec. 11 and 12, the council once again revisited the contentious issue of halibut management between commercial and charter sectors that remains unresolved more than 18 years after the first stakeholder workgroup was formed.

The results were a mixed bag for charter and commercial halibut users, with everyone getting something from the council decisions.

Commercial halibut fishermen who have absorbed quota cuts ranging from more than 50 percent in the central Gulf of Alaska to nearly 80 percent in Southeast were glad that the council reaffirmed its commitment to implementing the halibut catch sharing plan, or CSP, that has drawn so much controversy since the proposed rule was published July 22.

While acknowledging the issues that delayed implementation in 2012, the council intent is to address the matter at its April meeting to start the CSP in 2013.

There was also some relief for Southeast charter operators, who had a maximum size limit of 37 inches put in place by the IPHC in 2011 to hold the sector within its allocation after a cumulative overage of 3.7 million pounds between 2004 and 2010. During 2011 under the size limit, the Southeast charter sector was held to about 390,000 pounds, far less than its allocation of 788,000 pounds.

The IPHC holds an interim meeting each fall to present survey data and preliminary catch limit recommendations for regulatory areas stretching from the northern California coast to the Bering Sea. It will adopt 2012 catch limits at its annual meeting in Anchorage Jan. 24 to Jan. 27.

The North Council thought it had settled the matter of halibut allocations in October 2008 when it passed the halibut CSP by a 10-1 vote. The council was forced to take the matter up again when National Marine Fisheries Service told members Sept. 28 in Dutch Harbor that issues raised during the public comment period required further input from the council and the agency could not publish the final rule in time to take effect in 2012.

"We appreciate that the council re-committed to the catch sharing plan," said Linda Behnken, director of Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.

The halibut CSP would allocate the total commercial and charter harvest as a percentage, with each sector rising and falling in tandem with abundance and default management measures for the charter sector that grow more constraining as quotas decline.

Splitting the harvest as a percentage annually would replace the current guideline harvest level for charter allocation. The charter percentages under the CSP range from 14 percent to 17 percent by area and abundance level.

The CSP also included a provision for charter operators to lease pounds, called a guided angler fish, or GAF, from the commercial fishermen who receive individual fishing quota, or IFQ.

In 2011, the charter allocation in the central Gulf under the CSP would have been about 1.1 million pounds less than the current GHL of 3.65 million pounds, and charter anglers would have been on a one fish daily bag limit rather than two.

The smaller allocation under CSP, and the potential for a cut in bag limit based on the current low levels of halibut larger than 32 inches, caused an outcry in the charter sector after the proposed rule was published and more than 4,000 comments were received by NMFS.

A year from now, the council discussion could look far different if the IPHC moves forward with an alternative harvest strategy to address retrospective errors in estimates of exploitable biomass.

What was variously referred by members of the public to as the "nightmare" or "Armageddon" scenario is a harvest strategy that would drastically reduce quota to account for errors in biomass estimates.

The alternative strategy presented by the IPHC Nov. 30 would limit the central Gulf of Alaska to just 7.8 million pounds if applied in 2012 compared to the recommended catch level of 16.9 million pounds.

In Southeast, the harvest would be restricted to just 1 million pounds and the Bering Sea would be cut to 2.2 million pounds from the 2012 recommended catch of 5.9 million pounds.

The Southcentral charter sector would have an allocation of 2 million pounds, far less than the 3.1 million pounds for 2012, under the alternative harvest strategy. That is the lowest possible step down in the central Gulf GHL.

Depending on how the analysis shakes out in April, whether the CSP could be in place for 2013 will hinge on any modifications suggested by the council being logical outgrowths of the proposed rule. NMFS legal counsel will work with council staff between now and April to provide guidance on what modifications to the proposed rule could be considered.

If the council is able to satisfactorily address the NMFS issues at the April meeting, the council input would be incorporated into the publication of the final rule to allow the CSP to take effect in 2013. If the council cannot provide the information NMFS needs to respond to public comment in the final rule, the CSP would likely not be in place in 2013.

Andrew Jensen is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story..