Council caps halibut charter catch

Passengers will still be allowed to land up to two fish per day

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Federal regulators have voted to put a harvest limit on 1,100 halibut charter boats operating off Alaska.

And, to the relief of many, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council figured out a way to let customers keep catching two fish a day instead of one.

The vote Saturday by the council culminated more than three days of testimony and debate on a fight pitting the charter operators against the commercial fleet.

The harvest limit is intended as a steppingstone toward what many people see as the ultimate solution for the growing charter boat industry - a system of individual fishing quotas that would be assigned to each boat owner.

That system, which would be an extension of the individual quota program already in use by the commercial fleet, would effectively replace the harvest limit by letting existing or new charter operators buy quota shares if they want to expand their halibut catch.

Such a plan is complex and could take years to implement. But charter boat captains said Saturday they are committed to it.

As for commercial fishermen, most expressed relief at having won a seven-year fight for a limit on the charter harvest. They worried that the charter boats are steadily nibbling away at fish stocks commercial fishermen might otherwise catch.

Many in the charter fleet argued it was unfair to them - or, more particularly, to their passengers - to have to submit to a harvest limit when the commercial fleet takes the vast majority of the halibut.

In 1999 commercial vessels accounted for 84 percent of the halibut haul in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska while charter operators took 9 percent. The rest were taken by sportsmen in private boats, a user group unaffected by the council action.

Juneau charter boat operator Tom Dawson said there shouldn't be the distinction between charter boats and sports fishermen, a distinction that he says reflects a divide-and-conquer strategy by the commercial fleet.

``A charter operator is a sports fisherman,'' Dawson said.

Any regulations should affect charters and individual fishermen equally, he said. That's partly a tactical attitude, he added: ``When Fish and Game starts regulating 100,000 sports fishermen in Alaska, they're going to feel the impact.''

The council had considered a slate of possible measures to keep the charter harvest below the new limit, which is an average of the charter fleet's haul for 1995-99.

The council settled on a series of measures that would take effect depending on how much the fleet exceeds the harvest limit, beginning with limiting how many daily fishing trips each boat can take, prohibiting skippers and crew members from keeping fish, and ultimately cutting the passenger daily bag limit from two fish to one during August only.

But most people agreed Saturday that cutting the bag limit - which boat captains said would be disastrous for their businesses - won't be necessary.

The earliest the charter harvest limit and other measures could be published as regulations and put into effect would be 2001, said Jane DiCosimo, a council staff member.

Empire writer Bill McAllister contributed to this article.

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