Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Complex halibut allocation plan OK’d

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on Oct. 4 approved a plan to divvy up available halibut in two Alaska regions among commercial and charter fleets.

The council voted 10-1 for the plan in Southeast’s 2C and Southcentral Alaska’s 3A, hoping to set to rest halibut tussles between commercial fishermen and guided recreational anglers. The vote followed three days of often impassioned testimony from both sides, with Kachemak Bay charter boat operators asking the council to not limit their clients to one halibut.

The sole council member voting no, Ed Dersham, said he could not support the plan because it “does not meet the test of fair and equitable.” He is the operator of Dersham’s Fishing Charters in Anchor Point.

The ruling would impact the allocation of halibut caught on charter boats, which in turn causes loss for the thousands of guided recreational anglers who don’t own boats or know dangerous bay waters, a local group says. It would not impact private skiffs and fishermen.

Rex Murphy, of Winter King Charters and a member of the Charter Halibut Task Force, said the multitiered motion with its many amendments was confusing and disappointing. In the end, it was the opposite of a “simple” ruling the task force had requested.

“The bottom line is at certain levels of abundance, the motion proposes different charter-angler limits,” Murphy said Monday. “In Area 3-A, we would be looking at either a two-fish limit or a two-fish with one under the 32-pound limit, what we call the minnow rule. In times of medium abundance, it would either be the minnow rule or a one-fish bag limit. In times of low abundance we would have a one-fish bag limit. In times of super low abundance we would have a one-fish bag limit with modifications by the council.”

The minnow rule is one fish any size and one fish under 32 inches. A 32-inch fish is 11 pounds, head off and gutted, Murphy said.

The council wanted to reach a decision that wouldn’t involve revisiting the halibut allocation issue each year, Murphy said. The Charter Halibut Task Force had recommended that when abundance is low, that all sectors take reductions, Murphy said.

Commercial catch numbers for the 3A area in 2007, including Cook Inlet and Kodiak waters, was 25.9 million pounds of halibut.

Guided recreational anglers brought in 79,560 fish in waters from Anchor Point to Homer in 2006, according to information supplied by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, for 2006.

The task force is still studying the council’s ruling for ramifications, Murphy said. It will not go into effect for at least two years, having now to go to the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval, then to the Secretary of Commerce.
Ocean Hunter Charters Capt. Keith Kalke feels the council leans toward commercial fishing interests.
“That’s the fox guarding the hen house,” he said.

Only one member of the 11 voters on the council is a charter boat operator while six are commercial fishermen.

In reality, charter boat operators are something of a glorified taxi driver, Kalke said, for the many who can’t afford to buy their own fishing vessels. Cutting to one halibut for charter boats – not private boats – would create some hazardous situations, he said. Inexperienced people would be heading out on rough waters to get their catch. It’s also discriminatory against individual anglers when everyone should have access to federal waters and halibut jointly owned by all, he said.

“The waters throughout the Gulf and Cook Inlet are dangerous waters. A lot of people don’t feel safe trying it. We’re the safest outlet for fishing. A lot of people can’t afford to buy their own boats,” Kalke said.

There’s also concern that charter boat operators from 2A, in times of lower halibut allocation numbers, would move over to 3C. That would stress harvests in Kachemak waters, Murphy said, and trigger allocation reductions.

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