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Sportfish reps, NMFS agree one-fish limit isn't on table

Posted: September 8, 2013 - 2:28pm  |  Updated: September 9, 2013 - 12:02am

Sportfishing and charter halibut representatives have acknowledged that implementation of the new halibut catch sharing plan would not necessarily mean guided anglers in Southcentral Alaska face a one fish bag limit.

That’s good news for anglers — and a marked change from the guide industry’s comments earlier in the summer.

The guided halibut sector in Southcentral has widely and publicly described the new plan, or CSP, as an effort to reduce the bag limit out of Kodiak and Kenai Peninsula ports from two fish to one, and to reallocate those fish to the commercial sector.

On its website, the Alaska Charter Association, or ACA, has a graphic that reads “I fish...You fish, We’ll all fish ...for ONE FISH? Save your ‘but. No CSP.”

After the comment period closed Aug. 26, some sportfishing representatives said that the one-fish bag limit is likely not on the horizon in Southcentral.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said changes to the current management measures are something he’s expecting guides will face next summer. But a reduced bag limit is not the first choice in lowering the harvest.

“They’re going to try and keep the two fish bag limit,” Gease said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, received about 4,123 comments on the new halibut catch sharing plan, although not all necessarily made it in before the Aug. 26 deadline.

NMFS is tasked with responding to those comments before publishing the final rule in the Federal Register, with the goal to implement the plan starting in 2014.

Many of the comments submitted this summer appear to be in response to information from the guided fishing sector. Charter clients in Southcentral were told that the federal managers were trying to limit their catch and reallocate those fish to commercial anglers. Among the most widely spread pieces of information was the bag limit change, and more than 1,000 comments protest that.

But Southeast Alaska Guide Organization’s Executive Director Heath Hilyard said the one fish campaign wasn’t truthful.

“It’s just not accurate,” Hilyard said.

The catch sharing plan has been in development for more than a decade, with the charter sector successfully stopping it in 2011 by flooding NMFS with comments. NMFS subsequently told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, that it could not address the substance of many comments in time for implementation in 2012.

The ACA website details that history, along with the phrase: “Let’s do it again!”

The association also has a secondary website focused on the CSP, www.saveyourbut.com, where it lists issues with the plan. One page asks for donations to aid the fight against it. That website says: “It will cost us far less now to stop the CSP than a costly lawsuit later.”

NMFS also released a set of talking points about the program. The 10-point document, which is posted on the council website as an item for its October 2013 meeting, addresses many of the common misconceptions spread this summer, including those about possible bag limit cuts.

“Assertions that this management program establishes or will result in a one-fish limit in Southcentral Alaska in 2014 are unfounded,” the document states. “If the Catch Sharing Plan had been in place in 2013, the charter allocation would have been 18.3 percent of the combined catch limit in Area 2C (Southeast), and would have resulted in the continuation of a one-fish bag limit in that area. In Area 3A (Southcentral), the allocation would have been 17.5 percent of the combined catch limit for that area (slightly higher than the 2012 harvest), and would have resulted in NO change to bag limits (i.e. the limit would have remained two fish of any size). Barring a significant reduction in halibut abundance in 2014, a two-fish bag limit is expected to continue in Area 3A (Southcentral).”

The document also counters the idea that fish are being reallocated.

“The catch sharing plan requires both commercial and charter sectors to share in the burden of conservation based on receiving percentage allocations of an overall catch limit. It does not reallocate halibut, relative to recent harvest levels, from the charter to commercial sector,” according to the document.

This council approved this iteration of the plan in October 2012. At that time, representatives from the charter industry said it was something they could live with.

The plan creates a combined catch limit for the commercial and charter sectors, with each receiving a percentage of the allowed harvest beginning in 2014.

The exact charter-commercial split will be different in areas 2C, or Southeast, and 3A, the Central Gulf of Alaska.

Under the proposed plan, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, would continue to set the overall catch limit each year, and the charter sector would receive a percentage of it. The exact percentage would vary based on abundance, with higher allocations to charter anglers at times of low abundance.

Subsistence and unguided sport anglers are factored in to the total catch outside that limit, and would not be affected by the plan.

Management measures — such as bag limits — would be set annually, with input from the council’s charter management implementation committee. That committee is comprised largely of charter operators and others within the industry.

While the committee may have to consider restrictions for next year if halibut abundance continues its downward trend, there are many considerations before reducing the bag limit.

Gease said the possibilities include limiting the number of trips per day, limiting halibut fishing to six days per week rather than seven, a slot limit, or other changes. He also said he thought managers would use every tool in the toolbox to allow anglers to catch two fish.

Hilyard said he had also heard that Alaska Department of Fish and Game told operators that they’d do everything possible to keep the two fish limit.

Despite those realities, the misinformation that has already spread could make it harder for guides to book trips in 2014.

Hilyard said Southeast guides did not have the same message as those in Southcentral. That’s partially a reflection of the different fishing situations — Southeast anglers are already limited to one fish. But it’s also because they don’t want to spend the winter re-educating clients to get them to come back.

Hilyard said he’s talked to Southcentral operators who told him that they’ll have to spend money this winter marketing the fact that the bag limit isn’t necessarily changing.

On the management side, timing of implementation and selecting annual management measures could get tricky this fall.

The CSP was intended to be implemented for the 2014 fishing season. Before the can happen, NMFS must address the comments it received and publish a final rule. That likely needs to happen before management measures are set to be discussed in December.

By early December, ADFG should have a preliminary estimate of the 2013 sport harvest, and the IPHC should have a preliminary idea of the 2014 limits.

Then, the council’s charter management committee will be able to discuss ways to keep anglers within the likely limits.

That’s the body that could recommend a reduced bag limit in Southcentral, although such a move is unlikely unless there’s a significant decline in the available biomass. Generally, the committee wants to select management measures that will provide anglers as much fishing opportunity as possible without worrying about going over the sector’s allocation.

Then the NPFMC will consider the committee’s selection and make a recommendation to the IPHC, which will meet again in January to determine the final halibut limits and consider the proposed management measures.

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