Full audio from meeting - approx one hour 20 minutes
HOMER Fearing that a controversial halibut catch-sharing plan could kill the charter and tourism industries on the Kenai Peninsula, a standing-room-only audience of charter operators and others packed a Homer Chamber of Commerce luncheon Aug. 23 at the Bidarka Inn to hear from Sen. Mark Begich and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Jane Lubchenco.
The plan NOAA is considering favors the commercial halibut fleet, charter operators say. They argue that it does not reduce the overall catch, but does shift halibut from the charter to the commercial fleet.
Current regulations allow halibut-charter buyers in Kenai Peninsula waters to take two fish per trip. Under certain conditions, the new rules could cut the bag limit in Southcentral waters to a single fish, devastating the industry, charter operators argue.
Many in the crowd came hoping to hear why the charter fleet appears to have been singled out for dramatic reductions in catch levels and what Begich and Lubchenco were prepared to do about it. The pair offered some practical remarks about the rule-making process and urged the audience to submit written comments during the ongoing 45-day comment period that closes Sept. 6, but probably did little to ease public concerns.
Lubchenco told the audience the primary focus of the new plan was to ensure future sustainability of the fishery. Because conservation takes priority over allocation, the final plan would very likely include provisions that won't be popular with everyone, she said.
"I am very sympathetic to the economic issues that you all are bringing in," Lubchenco said. "The reality is we have to get to a better place with this fishery; one that can be sustainable through time. And that means that business as usual is just not going to be possible."
After Chamber Executive Director Monte Davis read a long string of questions, Begich and Lubchenco attempted to address their substance, assisted by Rachel Baker, a Juneau-based fisheries specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Many asked why the plan was developed without benefit of a full economic impact analysis of the effect on the charter and tourism industries, and how the proposed rules ever made it so far into the process without one.
Audience members wanted to know why officials appeared to be rushing to approve a plan that might "turn the Kenai Peninsula into a ghost town?"
Baker said the council's decision to proceed was based on "previous experience" with limited access programs, affirming for some that decisions were not being made on the basis of recent economic data. Baker said the halibut limited access program was not expected to cut charter harvest sufficiently, and that a catch-sharing plan was needed.
Other questions concerned the plan's mechanism for combining commercial and charter halibut allocations, and a proposed Guided Angler Fish (GAF) program, a rule that would allow commercial halibut Individual Fishing Quotas to be transferred to the charter fishery, where they would be called GAFs. Lubchenco noted that the GAF program was an attempt to address possible economic impacts of a one-fish restriction to the charter fleet.
Another comment suggested that reducing wasted bycatch in the trawl fleet could allow more fish for the charter industry. One questioned what NOAA is doing to monitor bycatch in the trawl fleet.
Baker said the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was working to address the bycatch issue. Management programs have been tested in the Bering Sea, she said, and the NPFMC will soon consider applying similar programs in the Gulf of Alaska.
In response to an inquiry about whether "slot limits" restricting halibut harvest to within a certain size range had been considered, Lubchenco said yes, but that the idea had been rejected for practical reasons in favor of maximum length limits.
One questioner commented that the new rules favored large, industrial fishing operations over small business owners, "the engine" that drives our economy.
Lubchenco said NOAA's responsibility under federal law was to end overfishing so that stocks can recover. Fulfilling that mandate includes review of management plans forwarded by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The declining population of halibut triggered development of the current limited entry program and the drafting of the new catch-sharing rules, she said.
"We are required to have the long-term in mind," she said, adding that "we are beginning to turn the corner on overfishing."
The plan review includes considering economic impact, Lubchenco said. That's one reason for collecting written public comment. But when she asked if audience members had participated in the extensive hearings process done previously by the NPFMC, many members of the audience shouted, "No," saying they had been too focused on other critical fisheries issues at the time.
Regardless of what rules are eventually adopted, there likely would be problems, Lubchenco admitted. She said there would be opportunities to address those problems in the future.
"These issues are so complex, it sometimes takes a while to get them right," she said.
Begich said the difficulty surrounding many fisheries issues generally means "winners and losers" when fishing rules are implemented, but that it was critical to think 10, 15 and 20 years out.
"Are we going to have a sustainable fishery at all levels and in all sectors? The answer should be yes," he said.