KENAI — Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen and sport anglers have often had disputes about who should have the right to catch salmon.
These days, the focus is on another valuable fish, halibut.
A dispute over a federal plan to protect the halibut population has pitted commercial fishing interests against businesses that make money off sport anglers — lodge owners and managers, plus charter operators — who say new rules could spell the end of their industry.
Bill Davis of the Salmon Catcher Lodge in Kenai told the Peninsula Clarion that a provision in the plan that would regularly adjust the guided angler’s bag limit between two fish of any size to one fish, based on results of stock estimates, would “break” the Peninsula.
“If they take the halibut away from us, there is a good chance we will put this up for sale,” he said of the lodge he manages.
Anglers will not travel to Alaska and spend thousands of dollars to catch one halibut per day, he said.
Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, doesn’t believe it. Commercial fishermen already have been hit with previous conservative regulations, he said.
“I think it’s a little bit of ‘Chicken Little,’ you know running around saying the sky is falling and ‘Woe is me,’” Maw said. “Will it affect their business? Undoubtedly. But, will it force them out of business, every last one they are claiming? No. We’re businessmen — we make things work.”
Glenn Merrill, assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said his agency has received hundreds of letters on the proposed rules and expects more. The comment period has been extended through Sept. 21.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is gathering feedback on the “catch sharing plan,” a draft rule recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The proposal affects Southcentral Alaska, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, plus the Panhandle. Commercial and charter fishing now are managed separately.
Under the new plan, the total catch would be split between the two sides after managers subtract out the catch by subsistence fishermen and unguided anglers.
Charter operators could land in one of four tiers, giving them a percentage of the catch varying between 10.5 percent and 18.9 percent.
The tier system also sets bag limits: two fish of any size, two fish with one less than 32 inches long, or just one fish.
NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Julie Speegle said the top consideration is protecting a halibut population that has seen a steep decline.
A one-halibut limit for guided anglers, she said, is not a sure thing despite the claims of the charter industry. However, she acknowledged that a one-fish limit would have been in effect for 2011.
Mike Crawford, head of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory committee, said the catch sharing plan would leave a “huge dent” in the charter industry, if not worse.
“This is a charter boat killer, this is an industry killer,” he said.
Maw, who has fished commercially since 1973, said the plan is a balanced approach to conservation.
“When we have the biomass and the fish that can be exploited, when that’s high, then we all share, and when the abundance is low as it is now ... the plan says everyone is to back off and let the stocks recover,” he said.
Davis, however, contends the Kenai Peninsula economy rests on the sport fishing industry and the ability to catch two halibut as a way to satisfy customers when salmon fishing is slow.
“They are destroying tourism here and when tourism leaves the Peninsula, the last guy brings the flag and shuts the lights off because it’s statistically proven that fish is worth 10 times as much in the river or in the freezer through sport caught than it is through commercial caught,” he said.
Along the Panhandle, charter fishermen are now limited to one halibut per day no longer than 37 inches.
“In Southeast my friends have either gone out of business this summer, or they are going out of business,” Davis said.