Web posted Friday, August 26, 2011

Charter sector faces changes, but not like closures set in Canada

By Andrew Jensen
Alaska Journal of Commerce

Charter halibut operators concerned about how a proposed rule to divide the harvest between their sector and the commercial fishery can take solace in one thing: at least they're not in Canada.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed the recreational halibut fishery effective Sept. 5 because sport fishermen have reached their harvest allocation for the season.

Alaska charter operators have long and successfully resisted in-season management measures such as changes in bag limits — and especially closures — designed to keep them within their allocation.

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The DFO closure in Canada is the result of the recreational fishery, which includes charter and unguided anglers, exceeding its allocation for five of the last six years.

This hasn't proven to be a problem in Southcentral Alaska, which has stayed within the charter allocation of 3.65 million pounds for every year but one since 2004 while managed under a two-fish of any size daily bag limit.

That hasn't been the case in Southeast, a triangle-shaped regulatory area called 2C with the panhandle as one side and a horizontal border with Canadian waters as another.

The charter sector in Southeast has exceeded its allocation every year since 2004, more than doubling up in 2008 with 1.9 million pounds while on an allocation of 930,000 pounds.

In 2008, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a plan to split the halibut harvest as a percentage between charter and commercial and set default bag limits based on the amount of halibut available.

The plan also provides for charter operators to lease pounds from the commercial sector to provide additional fishing opportunity for their clients if the rule requires a bag limit of one fish or a size limit.

Now that the proposed final rule has been published and the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking comments through Sept. 6, much of the attention has focused on what it would have meant for the charter sector were it in place for 2011.

The biggest effect on Southcentral anglers would be a cut from a two-fish to a one-fish bag limit, in addition to a likely cut in allocation of about 1 million pounds.

Southeast has already gotten a taste of the rule, known as a catch sharing plan, in 2011. The International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, placed a 37-inch size limit on Southeast guided anglers in addition to the one-fish daily bag limit put in place by the North Pacific council in 2009.

Through June, the Southeast charter sector had harvested about 120,000 pounds of halibut with an average weight of 9 pounds each, compared to 350,000 pounds and an average weight of 27 pounds in 2010.

Looking back

What are always contentious allocation fights among sport and commercial fishermen of all species is exacerbated by the current low levels of halibut of the commercially legal size of 32 inches or longer.

Commercial allocations of halibut have declined 79 percent in Southeast since 2005 and by 43 percent in Southcentral, which makes the chronic problem of charter overages in Southeast even harder to take.

While there remains a large biomass of halibut in the Gulf of Alaska, it is taking longer for fish to recruit into legal size, and concerns about localized depletion are being raised in Southeast from both commercial and subsistence users.

However, despite the heartburn about how the charter sector would have been affected in 2011, it's likely there wouldn't have been nearly as much of a fight had the rule taken effect in the season following the 2008 council action.

In 2009, under the proposed rule, Southcentral charter anglers would have received an allocation of 3.55 million pounds, (nearly identical to the current 3.65 million) and been on a two-fish bag limit with one required to be less than 32 inches.

In Southeast, the charter sector would have received an allocation of 900,000 pounds (larger than the actual 2009 charter allocation of 788,000 pounds) and would have been on the same two-fish bag limit as Southcentral with one less than 32 inches.

According to commercial harvest data, 2011 is the only year since 1983 when Southcentral anglers would have been under a one-fish bag limit. In only eight of the last 27 years would the two-fish bag limit have been required to have one less than 32 inches.

Southcentral's halibut biomass has also been remarkably resilient. Since 1984, it has rebounded quickly after declining trends.

If the proposed catch sharing rule had been in place, Southcentral charter anglers would have been on a restricted two-fish bag limit for no more than two consecutive years (1984-85; 1995-96; 2000-01; 2009-10).

Looking at Southeast, charter operators would have also faced mostly liberal harvest rules under the plan up until the point where the IPHC began cutting commercial allocations to address declining legal-sized halibut in 2008.

At any commercial harvest greater than 8.5 million pounds, the charter allocation would be about 1.5 million pounds or more, which is nearly identical to where the North Pacific council set the guideline harvest level in 2000.

The commercial harvest for Southeast was at least 8.5 million pounds in all but one year from 1985 to 2007.

Even at low levels of abundance in Southeast during 2010, under the proposed rule the charter sector would have been on a restricted two-fish bag limit as long as they were projected to stay within their upper allocation range of 960,000 pounds.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.