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Halibut conservation should be a shared responsibility

Posted: August 27, 2011 - 10:17pm  |  Updated: August 29, 2011 - 9:37am

No one likes one halibut a day and the 37 inch size limit, particularly the guided sport industry. But unless the Halibut Catch Sharing Plan now before the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is adopted this will become the norm for some time.

This is happening for three reasons. First the halibut resource is in a period of cyclical decline. But this is not enough to trigger the current restrictions. Overharvest is the other primary reason. Here in Southeast the charter fleet has exceeded its Guideline Harvest Level (GHL) every year by 22 percent —115 percent since the GHL went into effect in 2004. In the same time, the halibut resource has declined by 58 percent and the Southeast commercial harvest was cut by 78 percent. The reason the commercial harvest has declined so precipitously is that overfishing by the charter fleet is deducted from the subsequent year’s commercial quota to protect the resource. This gets to the third reason why one halibut per day may be the norm — current NMFS regulations do not force the charter industry to stay within its quota thus forcing the International Pacific Halibut Commission to impose bag and size limits. The way around this is the Halibut Catch Sharing Plan now under public review.

Instead of placing a disproportionate share of the conservation burden on the commercial fleet, the Halibut Catch Sharing Plan would allow NMFS to strictly regulate the GHL to the charter fleet; prevent overfishing and share the burden of conservation. Although this seems eminently fair and reasonable, the charter industry would have you think differently. They are painting this as a fish grab by commercial fishermen

Yes, there is an allocation consequence when a sector whose has been overharvesting is now obligated to share in the conservation burden. This message comes through when the charter industry highlights a one-year slice of the pie by correctly projecting a 31 percent reduction in Southeast charter harvest in 2011 if the Halibut Catch Sharing Plan went into effect this year. While they may be right in showing some reallocation pain in future years, it is not the least bit accurate to suggest that the Halibut Catch Sharing plan is allocation driven. Given the charter fleet’s egregious record of overharvest this is a bit disingenuous.

Commercial fishermen, knowing all too well about the economic cost of sharing the burden of conservation, have even agreed to setting the Southeast allocation above the original 2004 Guideline Harvest Level given to the charter fleet. “The commercial sector didn’t like giving up additional allocation for the third time, but we’re willing to do it to reach a final settlement to put the issue to rest”, notes Kathy Hansen with the Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance. Additionally the halibut plan includes a one-way option for charter operators to buy quota from commercial fishermen as a means to lessen the conservation pain and/or provide economic stability.

Right now, the biologists are stumped as to why it’s taking so much longer for the halibut stock to grow into larger reproducing size. Until that answer comes the only recourse is either adopting the Halibut Catch Sharing plan or remain with the norm of one “minnow size” charter fish per day along with increasing cuts to commercial quotas. The other advantage of the Halibut Catch Sharing plan is that when the stocks improve, NMFS will have the ability to remove the bag and size limitation in a much timelier manner than the years it normally takes for regulations to work through the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council process.

As Alaskans whose statehood is forged from a pressing need to protect salmon stocks shouldn’t every fishing sector have a role in rebuilding the halibut resource? As Alaskans who herald being the only state with a constitutional provision for sustained yield, shouldn’t we all fairly share in the burden to not overharvest? If you answer “yes,” please support the plan now before the National Marine Fisheries Service.

• Troll is a longtime Alaska resident and resides in Douglas.

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