KODIAK - Charter boat operators have introduced a last-minute proposal with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to create individual fishing quotas for charter boats.
The quotas are offered as an alternative to a guideline harvest limit on halibut to be considered by the council at its meeting in Anchorage next week.
``IFQs would give sport guides control of their own destiny instead of just bumping up against a cap,'' said Mike Bethers of Juneau, executive director of the Alaska Sportfish Council. ``As stocks go down, if a guy's business demands more, he can buy more IFQs or he can sell if he decides to get out.''
Bethers and Bob Ward, owner of A-Ward Charters in Homer, submitted the new option to the council on Thursday.
Under the proposal, charter boat owners would receive a percentage share of the overall halibut quota based on their catch histories in the years 1998-99, the first years that charter boats were required to keep logbooks.
The system would work the same way as commercial halibut IFQs, meaning any person wanting to break into the industry would have to buy in. In order to expand, owners would have to buy more shares. Sport guides would be able to buy shares from commercial fishermen, and vice versa.
IFQs would protect Juneau charters, whose customers don't catch much of the Southeast guided sport harvest, said Jim Preston, president of the 40-vessel Juneau Charter Boat Operators.
Last year, customers of Juneau charters caught only about 80 halibut in near waters, and about 2,000 halibut in outer waters such as Icy Strait, he said.
Preston is concerned that big charter catches out of Sitka and Prince of Wales would exceed guideline harvest limits, which are set by broad areas, and trigger restrictions throughout Southeast.
If catches need to be cut, the North Pacific council might prohibit harvest by charter skippers and crew, reduce the daily bag limit or set an annual bag limit.
``An IFQ program makes some sense to me personally,'' said Kevin O'Leary, a council member from Kodiak. ``It would provide an equitable way to reallocate from one sector to another. The ones who feel they can get a good economic return will be the buyers.''
IFQs would also be a way to reduce charter boat fleet size in communities that are overcapitalized.
``Reducing overcapitalization is an important part of this issue,'' Bethers said. ``Some of the better outfits would buy out some of the smaller guys, reducing the fleet size in that way instead of establishing a moratorium.''
Tom Gemmell, director of the Halibut Coalition, a commercial fishing organization, said the council should study the proposal.
If charter skippers and commercial fishermen could sell quota shares to each other, it could take care of some of the allocation problems between the groups and keep bureaucrats out of it, Gemmell said.
But commercial fishermen don't want the IFQ proposal to keep the council from setting guideline harvest limits for charter boats and finding a way to enforce them, he said.
Charter boats haven't been kept inside a previous limit, set in 1997, he said.
Empire writer Eric Fry contributed to this report.
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