Story last updated at 12/9/2009 - 11:49 am
Halibut charter operators in Southeast Alaska were defeated in a court battle to reinstate a two-fish-a-day rule for their fishery, and are now weighing their options for appealing the Nov. 23 federal court decision.
"We are still reviewing the decision," said Earl Comstock, a lawyer for the Charter Halibut Task Force. Typically an appeal must be made within 90 days.
The ruling could affect the economy in the Southeast region, he said.
"The state will take a huge hit at the recreational level, but not see a significant increase to commercial fishermen," he said. "To benefit a small number of commercial fishermen to whom it doesn't make a huge difference, you are basically asking a bunch of people in Southeast Alaska who depend on recreational fisheries to make a huge cut in their livelihoods."
The one-fish rule applies only in Southeast Alaska.
Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and board chair for the Halibut Commission, hailed the decision as a real benefit to protecting the halibut resource from overharvesting.
Behnken noted that the allowable harvest of halibut by the longline fleet has been cut by 53 percent over the last three years to keep the resource sustainable.
"The charter fleet exceeded its guideline harvest level by over 100 percent in 2008 and the charter harvest has continued to grow," Behnken said. "This decision establishes that all sectors need to share in conserving the resource, to ensure sustainable harvests for everyone in the future."
As a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for several years, Behnken spoke often of the need for the charter fleet to share responsibility for keeping the fishery sustainable.
Behnken said she was not surprised by the decision handed down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. While charter operators alleged that the U.S. Secretary of Commerce had failed to explain how the change from a two-halibut a day limit to one had been made, and whether it was fair and legal, the court found that the allocation decision was adequately considered.
The court noted in its decision that for years the charter boats had exceeded harvest level guidelines, and that in 2008 their harvest was more than double the guideline level.
"Tourism in Southeast Alaska is down because of the economy, not the one-fish bag limit," said Behnken, a commercial halibut harvester. "If you don't take care of the resource, everybody is in trouble in the future. We don't manage with a shortsighted vision. If you wipe out the resource, it will put you out of business, and everyone else at the same time. The halibut fishery has been fished sustainably for over 100 years without bankrupting the resource. No resource owes people a job."
Larry McQuarrie and Patty Seaman, owners of the Sportsman's Cove Lodge in Ketchikan, said in an interview days before the court's decision that the one-fish limit would have a definite impact on the value of the trip. In the 1990s, harvest limits on king salmon were more liberal and there were no size limits on an allowable catch of two halibut a day, they said.
Bob Ward, a veteran charter halibut operator in Homer, said he has seen no evidence so far that people who had booked trips to Southeast Alaska would change their plans.
"I'm not expecting to see a big swing," Ward said. "We still have to keep informing customers that two fish are still available here. I don't think the word will get out strong enough by anybody that there is a difference and that you should choose Homer over Sitka. Until the end of the season, we don't know what will happen."
Margaret Bauman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.