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NOAA updates Juneau Chamber on proposed halibut catch sharing plan

Posted: September 15, 2011 - 11:07pm

Fisheries Management Specialist Rachel Baker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave the Juneau Chamber of Commerce an update of the proposed halibut catch sharing program.

The plan, which was published in the Federal Register on July 22, is open to public comment through Sept. 21.

The proposed plan, if approved, will establish new management and allocations and specify harvest restrictions for guided sport and commercial fisheries in areas 2C and 3A. The plan is intended to proactively limit charter harvest to its intended allocations catch limit. The plan will also authorize annual transfers of commercial halibut quota to charter halibut permits holders for harvest in the guided sport fishery.

The plan is intended to provide sustainability and predictability for both charter and commercial fisheries.

After all comments are reviewed, NOAA will generate a final plan that would only be implemented if approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Baker said the hope is the final plan will be submitted by December. The plan, if approved, would be used at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s (IPHC) meeting in January to aid in determining catch limits for the 2012 fishery. The secretaries of State and Commerce must then approve the IPHC’s recommendations.

Baker gave an overview on why NOAA feels the catch sharing plan is needed. She said because halibut is such a valued and limited resource, allocations between users can be highly contentious and fluctuations in fish abundance creates unbalanced use among different users. She said this will specify limits for all fishery types.

She also said this is necessary because the current charter management system has a delayed feedback loop, so harvest level overages are addressed after-the-fact by harvest restrictions that are sometimes implemented years later.

Baker addressed further problems with the current charter harvest management, saying the current system doesn’t appear to be effective at limiting charter harvest to the benchmark level. She said those charter overages have a reallocation effect of reducing commercial catch limits to keep the total harvest within allowable limits.

“All areas of Alaska are seeing the fish fall off but it seems to be exacerbated in Southeast,” Baker said.

She also said the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) indicated that a market-based transfer system between the charter and commercial sectors should be implemented to alleviate allocation disputes.

Baker said approximately only 20 percent of the potential halibut in Alaskan waters are available for harvest due to current conservative management. She said this decline has gone on for the past decade, but the exact reasons are uncertain. She said allowable commercial limits have especially declined in recent years.

Those who spoke up at the meeting favor the plan. Commercial fisherman Jev Shelton said this has been long overdue.

“It finally sets a clearer allocation between commercial charters and commercial long-line catches of halibut so there doesn’t continue to be an overharvest,” said Shelton.

He said charter fleets have gone far over their allocation limits in recent years while commercial long-line fleets have always stayed within set allocations.

He said he hopes the final plan will include resolutions that clearly allow people

“This is not a first time for the issue. It’s been going on for 50 years and it’s a waste of time and resources to continue on and on,” he said. “There needs to be a resolution to allow people to understand the system and have accountability.”

“If this proposal is turned down, it means another five years of chaos and controversy,” he said.

Pearson’s Pond owner Maryann Ray said the plan will help generate accountability for the fleets.

“It’s critically important to manage the resource effectively and I think there has to be close monitoring of both charter and commercial harvests to make sure that we know who’s taking what fish,” Ray said.

She said she hopes the final plan will include ways of considering revenues generated from the fish as part of the allocation decision-making process.

The proposed halibut catch sharing plan can be found at bit.ly/oWiDoS.

Comments may be submitted through Sept. 21 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov, by fax to 907-586-7557 or by mail to P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668. Comments may also be hand-delivered to room 420A at the federal building.

Baker said her department’s goal, as well as that of the catch sharing plan, is to sustainably manage the halibut stock for all user types. She said an added challenge to this is that halibut management is different from other fisheries because it’s managed by a treaty between the United States and Canada, hence the involvement of the IPHC, NPFMC, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and NOAA itself.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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