Halibut charters face changing regulations

Jan 23, 2020

Fileting of Pacific Halibut taken in Cook Inlet
Credit Jlikes2Fish Public Domain

Fishery regulators meeting in Seattle next week will consider several options for allocating charter halibut catches in the Gulf of Alaska for 2020.

As KBBI’s Jay Barrett reports, the potential changes could mean more limitations on fishing opportunity this upcoming season.

Comments are due Friday at noon. Follow the link to read the proposals and comment.
https://meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/1243?fbclid=IwAR3cvj4XCHXdDH2CgrOO7AGBT1gg6sMkWu64hwZn6rQcuJrNK-wGyBXOZ80

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is currently taking comment on charter halibut management for Area 3A through noon Friday.

The Council’s Charter Halibut Management Committee met in October to develop alternative management measures for 2020 and came up with three options.

The first was status quo, which in the Central Gulf of Alaska includes a two-fish bag limit (one of any size and one less than or equal to 28 inches); a limit of one trip per-vessel per-day and one trip per-charter halibut permit per-day; an annual limit of four fish from charter vessels in Area 3A; all Wednesdays are closed to fishing throughout the year, and five Tuesdays in the high season are closed as well.

The other two options changed the number of Tuesdays and Wednesdays that are closed during the year, however, none of the three options resulted in a Total Constant Exploitation Yield, or in regulatory parlance, T-C-E-Y, that was within the range of the catch expected to be approved. The Area 3A charter halibut fishery has a status quo TCEY of 1.66 million pounds, and a smaller, reference figure of 1.24 million pounds for 2020.

Ben Martin is the president of the Homer Charter Association, representing about 50 individuals and businesses. Like many of the comments already made on the Council’s web page, Martin really would just like some breathing room from the constant changes.

“If we had consistent, like consistent regulations for a few years and then like a projected change two or three years from now then we could adjust our businesses to cope with that. But because we are two-thirds way through our booking season when the regulations come out, it makes it very difficult for us to maintain our viability," said Martin.

Martin points out that halibut charters have become an almost exclusively tourist activity, and therefore changes made at the regulatory level have an outsized ripple effect in the local economy.

“Restaurants, hotels, B-n-Bs, eco tours, gas stations, rental car companies, those guys all get affected when our product becomes less viable as people are less and less interested in going and paying the price it takes to go fishing. If they're only allowed to catch, you know, a little fish or they can't fish half the time they want to. So we're seeing a lot of changes in the numbers of people were getting fishing. Our Alaska residents used to take almost 40 percent of our clientele. Now Alaska residents are less than 5 percent,” Martin said.

Other commenters online said it was unfair to combine the Area 3A charter sector with the Area 3A commercial sector in determining Total Constant Exploitation Yield. Martin agrees, saying commercial and charter fishermen gauge success differently.

“When the charter sector has a cut, our business models are not based on on pounds of fish. It's based on angler experience, which is days on the water and basically numbers of fish. So all the regulations are based on pounds of fish, but our business models are all based on numbers of fish.”

Roark Brown with Homer Ocean Charters says the rule combining charter and commercial sectors is up for review next year. More immediately, he says when Bering Sea trawlers throw away about three times the amount of halibut as unwanted bycatch as 3A charter clients are even allowed to target, it feels personal.

“I've been doing this for three plus decades and I still have children at home and children at school here. It's basically taking food off my table and feed my children with. You know, it becomes harder and harder to make a living and you know, it’s, it's personal,” Brown said.

Brown also says he has been trying to become more vocal in defense of his industry.

“You know, I've been trying to be a little more boisterous about this, but it's, you know, the charter fisherman alone, don't have a very big voice. We don't have a lot of money to fight anything like this. We don’t, we're not a real big squeaky wheel. We squeak as much as we can, but we're small fish in a big ocean here, so to speak,” said Brown.

As for next week’s North Pacific Council meeting, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has analyzed a wider range of options than the first three, including measures combining day-of-the-week closures and reverse slot limits in allowable individual fish size. The document before the North Pacific Council goes on for 75 pages full of charts and tables analyzing different scenarios and how they could affect the charter catch.