The ratchet keeps tightening on Southcentral halibut charter operations, among other groups, and relief measures are still stuck in development.
The level of legally harvestable halibut in the North Pacific has dropped for a decade, and though biologists think the biomass has stabilized, downsized fishermen continue to fight for as much valuable quota as possible. Charter guides who’ve seen their portion drop want a way to buy quota from commercial operators.
The commercial fleet sees the plan as an unfair grab. They already share fish with charter guides under a catch sharing plan and there is a program for charter operators to lease, but not purchase, commercial quota.
“What happened from the mandate from the council to the charter sector that said ‘live within your allocation?’” asked Caroline Nichols, a Sitka commercial fisherwoman, at the December North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets the operating rules for charter captains in Alaska, and sets the harvest allocation split between charter and commercial fishermen that is derived from the overall quota chosen by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
At its December meeting, the council recommended a merciful amount of halibut, but a further tightening of restrictions.
Halibut anglers in Southcentral Alaska, or Area 3A, can still keep two fish per day but can catch fewer per year.
The council set a mostly status quo Southcentral guided angler harvest limit at 1.77 million pounds, 10,000 pounds more than last year. Anglers can only catch four per year instead of the five they were allowed in 2015, though the council kept the two-fish daily bag limit with a 29-inch size restriction on one fish.
Weekly day closures, which the council first added last year, will be held on Wednesdays for Southcentral. Thursdays were closed in 2015.
In Southeast Alaska, where charter captains fish salmon, black cod, and rockfish as well as halibut, restrictions have stabilized. Like last year, anglers in 2016 will be allowed only one fish per trip of either shorter than 42 inches or longer than 80 inches.
Southeast guided angler quota rose to 847,000 pounds, over 80,000 pounds more than last year.
In the past, the charter fleet hasn’t been successful at keeping within the limits the commission sets for it. In Southeast alone, the charter sector exceeded its allocation by a combined 3.7 million pounds from 2004 to 2010.
In 2014, Southeast exceeded harvest specifications by 110,000 pounds, and Southcentral exceeded by 413,000 pounds. The annual charter rule-setting was adopted as part of the Catch Sharing Plan passed by the council in 2012 that divides the total charter and commercial harvest on a percentage split based on abundance.
Southeast charter lodge owner Richard Yamada has a plan for keeping the charter fleet within its boundaries, a “market based solution” that matches up willing buyers with willing sellers. Few were satisfied the plan deserved public review, so the council sent the idea back to staff for tweaking.
“I strongly support moving this forward as a concept,” said council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak. “I’ve gone from skeptical to being excited about this amendment package.”
Under the plan, a recreational quota entity, or RQE, would buy commercial quota to be held in a common pool for charter operators to draw from as needed if they’re in danger of fishing over their harvest limit. Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, originally gave a level of halibut quota to commercial permit holders based on their historical harvest levels and involvement in the fishery, and it is bought and sold among fishermen.
Prices for quota typically run about five times or more the current ex-vessel value per pound, making purchases particularly expensive.
This would differ from the current Guided Angler Fish, or GAF, program, which only allows charter permits to lease commercial quota rather than buy it.
“Nothing forced, nothing taken,” said Tom Ohaus, a Sitka charter captain. “I’ve always found that giving people a choice is the best thing.”
Commercial fishermen have a laundry list of complaints about the proposal, fearing it could consolidate quota or stunt the commercial fleet. The biggest concern was that an RQE may inflate the market for halibut quota and make entry harder for young fishermen. Twins Ryan and Karina Nichols, Sitka fishing deckhands 28 years old apiece, both implored the council not to make any hasty decisions.
“An RQE will increase IFQ cost,” said Karina Nichols. “I see this constant erosion of affordability and accessibility of IFQs. Consider people like me who are trying to get into this industry.”
Without a way to buy their quota back from charter captains, commercial fishermen worried the charter industry could hold onto quota too long and grow too big.
“I talk to a lot of fishermen about this, and the one thing they do understand is it’s a one-way street,” said Sitka fisherman and council Advisory Panel member Jeff Farvour. “The commercial industry gets smaller and the charter industry gets bigger. They understand that much.”
As concessions, the council agreed to allow two-way quota transfers. To prevent overcapitalization, several amendments consider caps on how much quota charter permit holders could buy, and how much money in aggregate can be spent.
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.