Fishermen wait for halibut harvest numbers

Decision on this year's commercial harvest level expected Friday

Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alaska fishermen are gathered in Seattle this week with others from the Northwest region and Canada for the annual meeting of the international commission that manages halibut.

Commercial halibut fishermen in Southeast Alaska face a 26-percent cut in the amount of fish they are allowed to catch this year over last, and it's not the first year of cuts.

In five years, Southeast fishing quotas - the amount in pounds the commercial fleet can catch - has gone down by 65 percent.

Fishermen are becoming increasingly frustrated.

Robert Mosher, Juneau-area operator of the vessel Patience, paid thousands of dollars for the right to harvest halibut in the catch-share system.

"There is absolutely no indication of the needs for these cuts in my catch rate or in the catch rates of any other fishermen I've spoken to!" Mosher wrote in hand-written comments to the commission.

Fishermen are told to "believe in the science," Mosher wrote, but the commercial catch share in Southeast has decreased from about 10 million pounds to less than 4 million under this year's recommendation.

The recommendation comes from the International Pacific Halibut Commission staff, which uses fish surveys and other science to generate an estimated amount of halibut in waters, and then figures how much should be harvested.

The recommendation is published in December, followed by a comment period.

"Your scientists are a bunch of clowns and if the IPHC backs them, then they are driving the clown car!" Mosher wrote.

A final decision is expected Friday.

Hours leading up to the decision are "nail-biting agony," said Sitka fisherman Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Halibut Coalition, who is in Seattle this week for the meetings.

As the head of an advocacy group representing the commercial fleet, Hansen posts the commission's decision on the group's Web site soon after it is announced. Fishermen back home wait anxiously to see the number that will financially frame their season, Hansen said.

In its comments this year, the Halibut Coalition requested managers put stronger controls on the charter fleet, which it blames for consecutive reductions in commercial catch limits.

While commercial fishermen face large cuts, charter operators have tripled the amount of fish caught since the guided sport fishing industry took off about a decade ago.

The IPHC sets catch limits for the commercial fleet, but charter operators are managed by the North Pacific Management Council, which up until recently has been reluctant to put controls on guided sport fishing.

This year, charters will start to register in a new limited-entry program designed to reduce the number of operators in Southeast waters. It also will be the second year of a controversial one-fish bag limit for charter customers.

Richard Yamada, a Southeast charter operator in Seattle this week representing Alaska Charter Association, said in his comments to the IPHC that managers need to stop underestimating the charter catch.

Yamada said the Southeast charter fleet's estimated catch should be 1.3 million pounds, instead of the 780,000 pounds the staff is working with.

The lower number represents a Guide Harvest Level - a target that charter fishermen have exceeded every year since it was implemented.

The GHL is the number Hansen and other commercial fishermen say the charter fleet should be held to through bag limits, limited-entry and other means.

Friday's decision is expected at about mid-day.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or by e-mail to kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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