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NOAA further examining halibut catch sharing plan

Posted: September 30, 2011 - 12:05am

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is re-examining its proposed halibut catch sharing program following policy and technical concerns raised during the public input period that ended Sept. 21.

NOAA reports it conducted a preliminary review of more than 4,000 public comments.

“After our initial review, we believe that a number of the comments raised issues that may require additional input from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) before NOAA Fisheries can proceed to a final rule,” NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Region head Glenn Merrill told the council. “We are still moving forward with the rule-making process, but we are getting some issues clarified and refining the rule based on public comments and additional council input.”

Numerous comments led to three main concerns: management implications at lower levels of abundance, economic impacts of the catch sharing plan, and methods for calculating the average weight for guided angler fish that may be leased from commercial Individual Fishing Quota operators reporting guided angler fish.

Fisheries Management Specialist Rachel Baker responded to how the plan address these issues.

She said the proposed plan would impose stricter management measures at lower levels of abundance to restrict charter harvest. A variety of management measures were considered by the NPFMC, which ultimately choose traditional daily bag limits with or without size limits, depending on the level of abundance.

As for economic impacts, Baker said the proposed catch sharing plan states there is limited economic information to quantify impacts and that analyses provide a qualitative description of each sector and expected impacts of the proposed plan on each sector. She said this applies to both commercial and charter catches.

For the final main concern, she said the guided angler fish aspect of the proposed plan would authorize charter halibut operators to lease individual fishing quotas from commercial operators. She said the commercial sector measures harvest in pounds, while the charter sector measures in number of fish and so the challenge is in making a conversion from pounds to number of fish that would accurately account for halibut harvested. She the only data available to make that conversion is the average weight of a charter fish caught, and that is the method the NPFMC has recommended. However, she said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and public comments pointed out that this is problematic. For example, if the method deducts a 20-pound halibut for each guided angler fish as the average weight of a charter-caught halibut but the average guided angler fish halibut is 30 pounds, then there is no way to properly account for the 10-pound difference. This could result in stock conservation concerns. Baker said more information is needed to ensure the method properly accounts for halibut harvested.

In a release, Merrill said further review of public comments may also raise other technical issues that may require additional input from the NPFMC. He said that although some of these issues could be resolved by NOAA Fisheries, others raise important policy and implementation questions that are best addressed by the NPFMC.

NOAA Fisheries will brief the NPFMC at a future meeting to request additional guidance from the on specific topics of concern.

NOAA fisheries hopes to have a final plan drafted by the end of the year in time and, if approved, that the International Pacific Halibut Commission can use it during its January meeting to help determine catch limits for the 2012 season.

Merrill said NOAA Fisheries strongly encourages the NPFMC to schedule time at its upcoming December meeting, or schedule a special meeting if necessary, to consider guidance to IPHC for its 2012 halibut management. He said this guidance should consider the existing guideline harvest level allocation and the suite of management measures developed under the catch sharing plan to manage the charter halibut fleet within its allocation.

NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said if the halibut catch sharing plan passes, it may be implemented in a phased-in approach.

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

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