ANCHORAGE - The federal body that regulates commercial fishing off Alaska will meet here this week to consider one of the most divisive issues to emerge in years: what to do about halibut charter boats.
The meeting, which begins Wednesday, promises to be a classic allocation battle pitting guided sport fishermen against their commercial counterparts.
More charter boats are carrying more customers and catching more fish. That growth is deducted directly from the commercial fleet's catch.
In September 1993, commercial halibut fishermen asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cap how much halibut the charter boats can catch.
``Might as well close up shop,'' said Stacey Mitchell, a Valdez charter boat operator.
By the end of this week, the 11-member council hopes to set a cap for the charter boats and pick some potentially painful measures that will keep their catch under that limit.
Among the options the council is considering:
Cut the charter passenger bag limit from two fish to one.
Put a moratorium on new charter boats.
Limit the number of fishing lines that can be deployed from charter boats.
Ban boat crews from catching fish.
Confine boats to certain areas.
The measures would apply only to charter boat operators, lodges and outfitters. They wouldn't affect recreational or subsistence fishermen. And none of the measures would take effect before 2001 while regulations are developed, council staff said.
The council action will affect only two management areas: Area 3A, which takes in the vast Southcentral area including Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, and Area 2C, which covers Southeast.
In Southcentral, commercial fishermen caught 25.3 million pounds of halibut in 1999, compared with the charter catch of 3.2 million pounds. In Southeast, it was 10.2 million pounds for commercial fishermen and 1.1 million pounds for charter boats.
By all accounts, halibut stocks are healthy but are forecast to drop. Sport and commercial fishermen caught a record 74 million pounds in 1999. In January, the International Pacific Halibut Commission scaled back this year's catch by 9 percent, to 67.5 million pounds.
Charter boat operators say commercial fishermen don't want to share the fish. They say it's the ordinary person with no boat but with a desire to reel in his own fish who will suffer the most.
Charter boat operators also cite bycatch, which are fish caught unintentionally by trawlers, longliners and other types of commercial fishing boats.
By regulation, most of this halibut must be thrown back into the water dead or alive. Halibut bycatch totaled almost 13 million pounds statewide in 1999 - a waste that far exceeds the charter catch, charter operators say.
But commercial fishermen say that's an unfair comparison. They note that most of the bycatch is caught in trawler nets in the Bering Sea, far from the Southcentral and Southeast management areas.
In those two areas, bycatch totaled about 2.6 million pounds in 1999 - less than the 4.3 million pounds the charter boats took.
Dan Falvey, a Sitka commercial halibut fisherman, said it's only fair that the 1,100 charter boats face a catch limit just as commercial fishermen do.