Management agencies took another step to control halibut fishing in parts of Alaska by limiting the number of charter boats in the fleet.
The new program announced Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was put in place to stem growth in Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf of Alaska.
The amount of halibut taken by the Southeast charter fleet has more than doubled during the past decade with increasing tourism. At the same time, catch limits for commercial fishermen have been reduced by half and the total catch has exceeded scientists' recommendations.
Business owners beginning in 2011 will be required to display a permit from NOAA for clients to legally catch halibut. Operators must qualify for a permit in 2010 by having a specified minimum level of business in previous years.
Limited entry, also known as a moratorium on new charter vessels, will reduce the number of boats guiding fishermen to catch halibut, NOAA said.
The moratorium is supported in concept by some in the business who want to secure their slice of the pie, said Juneau Charter Boat Operators Association spokesman Rick Bierman.
But not everyone agrees.
Tom Dawson of Three Eagle Charters qualifies for a permit based on his guiding history, but said he disagrees with the permit requirement on principle.
"I don't see how the feds can tell the state who they can let go into business," Dawson said, calling the new rule an attack on guided sport fishermen.
"These folks will now be limited in access to a public resource they have every right to go use," he said.
The program comes on the heels of a controversial one-fish bag limit imposed by NOAA on guided anglers last year. The limit had been two fish, and Bierman said the reduction would put him out of business.
Estimates show the one-fish limit might have caused the reduction in charter catch.
The fleet caught 1.3 million pounds in 2009 compared to 1.9 million the year before. But their harvest level last year was set at 788,000 pounds, so charter boats still haul in more fish than management agencies want them to.
Charter operators argue the harvest level is set unrealistically low, evidenced by the fact they've exceeded it every year since it was put in place in 2004.
The new limited-entry program won't serve to reduce the number of fish taken out of the water, said Alaska Charter Association Vice President Richard Yamada.
"It will split our industry into haves and have-nots," said Yamada, who operates a Shelter Island lodge. He said the two vessels he owns that will qualify for halibut permits will do a lot more bottom fishing than before.
Yamada estimated the new system would decrease by 40 percent the number of people in the region involved in halibut charter fishing.
In its own research based on 2008 fleet reports to the state Department of Fish and Game, NOAA determined that 231 businesses would qualify for a permit in Southeast and 173 would not. In Southcentral, 296 would qualify and 154 would not.
Some permits issued will be transferable, so charter operators who don't get one can potentially purchase a permit.
Purchasing the right to fish is familiar to the commercial fleet, which has supported limited entry for charter operators since it was introduced in 2005, said Kathy Hansen of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
Facing cuts of 26 percent in their allowable catch this year alone, commercial fishermen want limits imposed on the charter fleet.
Hansen wasn't sure if the limited entry program would reduce the charter fleet's catch right away, but said it would help everyone trying to solve allocation issues by solidifying the players in the charter sector.
The charter fleet has a high turnover rate, slowing progress in complicated negotiations for new management rules, Hansen said.
Limiting entry for charter operators makes them stakeholders and thereby part of the system, Hansen said, and that might foster an interest in having a sustainable fishery.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at email@example.com.