New halibut rules could hurt fleet

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2000

SOLDOTNA - Charter captains and sportfishing groups are getting worried that proposed cuts in halibut bag limits could be imposed as soon as summer 2001.

The Alaska Sportfish Council says limiting the charter fleet or cutting halibut bag limits would be unfair and could wreak havoc on tourist economies that depend on halibut fishing. The group has asked its members to contact the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets the rules for halibut fishing.

Towns like Homer and Ninilchik could take an enormous economic hit, charter captains say.

``The council isn't fixing a problem. It's throwing a wrench into the gears and expecting us to clear up the loose ends,'' said Bob Ward, owner of A-Ward Charters in Homer. He's the lone charter captain on the management council's advisory panel.

The council is scheduled to meet Feb. 7 in Anchorage to vote on new rules that could prevent the growing charter fleet from catching halibut allocated to commercial fishermen.

Halibut numbers have been swelling for years, but the pendulum may be swinging the other way, according to the council. The number of catchable halibut is expected to drop by 20 percent in Southeast waters and 25 percent near Cook Inlet next summer.

With an anticipated decline, the council wants to find a way to stop the charter fleet from expanding its take, said Chris Oliver, deputy director of the council.

``As the charter business continues to grow, it comes out of the pockets of the commercial fishery,'' Oliver said. ``This is an attempt, really, to share some of the burden.''

But charter operators say commercial fishermen already take the lion's share of the halibut - 75 percent of the catch. And they argue that longliners and trawlers waste more halibut each year than the entire Alaska sportfishery catches.

The fishery council is well aware that it can't impose sudden closures on charter captains, who often book clients months in advance, said deputy director Oliver. Instead, it's trying to come up with limits that take the nature of recreational fishing into account, he said.

Halving bag limits gets the most talk, but Oliver said the council can see that a 50-percent reduction goes too far. Regulators are looking at limiting the number of pounds of halibut caught per boat as a way around that problem, he said.

``What the council ends up doing, I think, is going to be largely dependent on the state Department of Fish and Game and the governor's position on this issue,'' Oliver said. ``It is very much a state issue. It affects coastal communities, it affects tourism. We don't know what their position is yet on this.''

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