PUBLISHED: 5:22 PM on Wednesday, October 15, 2008
New plan approved for halibut harvest quotas
North Pacific Fishery Council hears four days of testimony before deciding on plan
After nearly four days of testimony, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Oct. 4 approved a halibut catch sharing plan with a clear allocation between the commercial longliners and fishing charter vessels competing for the fish.

The action, prompted by council concern for keeping the annual charter harvest within specified catch limits, was seen as a fair compromise by longliners. Charter operators criticized the action as an allocation of 85 percent of a public resource to the longliners.

The National Marine Fisheries Service must now develop regulations to support the action, and these must be published in the Federal Register, as a preliminary rule. Then follows a period for public notice, revisions and a final rule, probably in 2010.

Ed Dersham, a council member who operates a salmon and halibut charter business from Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula, cast the lone dissenting vote. Dersham said the plan "does not meet the test of fair and equitable."

Council member Duncan Fields, a Kodiak attorney and fisheries consultant who voted with the majority in the 10-1 decision, said the plan was a significant step toward resolving the conflict between the charter and longline industries.

Fields said the plan does provide the halibut charter fleet with a one fish a day bag limit well into scenarios where the biomass of halibut reaches low ranges.

"And if the rate of catch (by charter vessel customers) goes down, even though the combined harvest hasn't changed, there is opportunity for them to increase their bag limit," Fields said.

The plan also allows charter operators the new option of leasing halibut from longliners who have quota shares, a percentage of the allowable harvest declared annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

Fields said leasing would provide "a huge opportunity" for charter operators in need of more fish to satisfy customer demands, but Earl Comstock, a Washington, D.C., attorney who is counsel for the Charter Halibut Task Force, said it was simply an additional revenue stream for the longline sector.

"The council set up a process so if the public wants to go on a charter, they have to purchase the additional fish from the commercial sector," he said.

The charter operators consider themselves to be sport-fishing operations serving a public need, while longliners see them as a competitive form of commercial fishing.

"We hope that the mechanism for regulation between the two sectors will be applied over time and we won't have to have annual adjustments by the council," Fields said.

The council has been trying to resolve the allocation issues between the longliners and charter industry for 15 years. The longliners have quota shares of a harvest determined by the IPHC, whose mandate is research and management of stocks of Pacific halibut. The charter sector has continued to exceed its guideline harvest level, a situation the longliners want stopped.

"It was a balancing act by the council to provide predictability and stability to the charter sector, to stabilize the setline (longline) sector, to protect the resource from overharvest and to protect access for subsistence and local sport fishermen," said Linda Behnken, a former council member and director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association. "We all compromised but this hopefully will bring more protection of the resource and more peace in the communities (who rely on the longline fisheries). The council extracted a good compromise."

She noted that longliners gave up some fish in the deal.

"It was a timely change in management measures to prevent overharvest by the charters," said Behnken, who was known in her days on the council as a strong advocate for protecting fishery resources.

Comstock argued that the number of people seeking fishing charters has grown steadily.

"They keep setting the target they want the charter operators to fit, but we are not the same as a commercial fisher. We can't stack anglers on the boat," he said, referring to limits set on the number of anglers allowed on a charter vessel.

"We are surprised that none of the agencies charged with representing the public didn't take a stronger stance in favor of the public," he added. "We are not asking for a tremendous amount; we don't want more than two fish (a day per angler)."

Still, with the charter sector continuing to grow, the charter industry has continued to exceed its guideline harvest level. Council members, including Fields, saw their decision as a way to halt localized depletion in areas where subsistence users and independent sport anglers need a guarantee of fish.

Gerry Merrigan, a council member from Petersburg and a commercial halibut fisherman, offered the winning motion for the plan.

"It establishes a line in the sand that I think is long overdue," Merrigan said. "With very low abundance, the charter industry will have a higher percentage of low abundance. That makes it more proportional. People can live with it if everyone shares the pain."