Group: Charter halibut harvest within allocation in Southeast Alaska for 1st time in 7 years

JUNEAU — The halibut charter catch in Southeast Alaska fell within allocation guidelines for the first time in seven years, a newly released analysis shows.

The Halibut Coalition released the finding Sunday, compiled from state and federal fisheries data. Preliminary estimates from the Alaska Fish & Game Department indicate about 388,000 pounds of fish were caught this year, about half the charter fleet’s 790,000-pound allocation. Estimates through July 31 show the number of fish caught was up 1 percent, though, from the same period a year earlier.

The department, in a recent letter to the International Pacific Halibut Commission, said the average weight for the fishery was down about 64 percent due to a rule, imposed this year, limiting the maximum size of a halibut caught by charter anglers to 37 inches.

Regulations also allow anglers to catch just one fish a day, a rule that started in 2009.

The limits are meant to help control the problem of overfishing in the region, and the coalition said angler interest has remained steady, despite the new rules and overall economy.

Since 2004, the charter fleet has exceeded harvest levels by 3.1 million pounds, and controlling the harvest “to levels commensurate with current abundance is critical to rebuilding the southeast Alaska halibut resource,” the coalition says.

Greg Sutter, president of the Alaska Charter Association, said the “draconian” 37-inch rule hit many operators hard, with cancellations and some anglers going to Southcentral Alaska instead, where the rules are different. Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, said Monday that the full brunt of the changes haven’t been felt yet because many operators had “hostage clients” this season, those who had already paid deposits and couldn’t back out of trips.

Hilyard said the best option, most favored by operators as being less onerous moving forward, would be to emphasize catching mostly smaller fish while still allowing an opportunity to catch a larger fish. That way, he said, clients could still have a chance for a good-size or trophy fish.

He said one of the things that affect the charter business most is telling a client they can’t catch a trophy fish. He said they want to know they at least have the potential.

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