Questions about federal shutdown’s impact on upcoming halibut season go unanswered

Jan 18, 2019

Pacific halibut is unloaded on the docks in Homer.
Credit Courtesy of Rudy Gustafson

As the federal government shutdown wears on, Alaska’s fishermen have started to see some of its impacts percolate to the surface.

But a major question the industry has is going unanswered: Does the National Marine Fisheries Service have a plan to open Alaska’s halibut and sablefish fisheries if the shutdown lasts?

There have been some problems that have come with the shuttering of the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS for short.

It’s delayed the catch of some Pacific cod quota, costing fishermen thousands of dollars in the short-term. Others have been unable to update their federal fishery permits, potentially costing some cod fishermen their entire season.

But a big unknown is whether the agency has a plan to open the halibut and sablefish seasons in March.

Buck Laukitus is a commercial fisherman and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.  He explains that not even fishermen in a position such as his, with regular access to NMFS employees, have a crystal ball.

“I don't have any hotline to call just like any other fishermen doesn't have any great source of information,” Laukitus said. “We just get bits and pieces from time to time.”

KBBI reached out to NMFS. A spokesperson issued a basic statement saying in part that the agency is still conducting enforcement activities and is able to close fisheries. NMFS did not address any questions about opening fisheries moving forward.

The process to kick off 2019’s sablefish and halibut fisheries will start with the International Pacific Halibut Commission in just under two weeks.

The commission determines Pacific halibut catch limits in western Canadian and U.S. waters. The U.S. sablefish fishery mirrors the halibut season, which the IPHC also sets.

“Once the catch limits are set and the regulation changes are adopted, then they’re recommended those to the U.S. government,” IPHC Assistant Director Steve Keith explained. “If approved, then they are published in the Federal Register. So, if the shutdown continues, that could be hampered.”

Keith said the IPHC also isn’t getting any answers from NMFS.

Malcolm Milne leads a commercial fishermen’s group in Homer. He said if the shutdown continues past the IPHC’s meeting, it could complicate an already tenuous situation on the commission.

Last year, Canadian and U.S. commissioners failed to agree on catch limits. That set up a rule-making crisis for the U.S., and the fundamental disagreement over divvying up the catch may be unresolved going into this year’s meeting.  

“Each side had to go back and do their own rule making process in order to prosecute the fisheries,” Milne added. “Our understanding right now is that that could be very complicated with the shutdown.”

Even if things run smoothly at the IPHC’s meeting, the shutdown poses other problems. Commercial fishermen rely on NMFS to process paperwork detailing how many pounds their quota share translates to. That won’t happen during the shutdown, and quota sales will also be on hold.

Even if the shutdown the agency, which can move slowly even in the best of times, will face a massive backlog.

These potential delays may not be detrimental to Alaska’s large sablefish and halibut fleets as a whole, but many fishermen count on targeting those species before other fisheries, such as salmon, open.  That could force some to choose one fishery over another.

“More than that, consumers,” Laukitus said. “There's restaurants that run their specials and want to see that halibut coming in first week of March and processors that are gearing up to buy fish and process them and move them down the road.”

Halibut charters are also watching closely. Some Gulf of Alaska operators fear a delay to the commercial season could force longliners to stay on the fishing grounds into the early summer months, a time when most commercial halibut fishermen move west.

They say that could create gear conflicts and unnecessary competition between their customers and commercial fishermen.