The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is trying a new way to fix allocation disputes between the charter and commercial halibut fleets - not by allocating charter operators more fish, but by allowing them to lease halibut quota shares from commercial fishermen.
The council moved forward this week on a management package, now released for public review, that includes allocations for charter boats. It would impose gradually stricter regulations on charter operators if they exceeded their limits.
"We want to be allocated more fish, and we see the leasing option as an excuse to allocate us less fish," said Rick Bierman, who runs the charter business Whales' Eye Lodge on Shelter Island.
Bierman also said charter boat operators were wary of relying on commercial fishermen, who would have to choose to lease their quotas to charters. When prices are good, he said, there might be no quota to lease because fishermen would use it themselves.
But commercial fishermen argue that the charters shouldn't be getting fish for free that they have to pay for.
"From the commercial side, we think it's a really good thing, because (charter boats) are obviously going over their allocation," said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
According to a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, charter boats have exceeded soft guideline harvest limits for the last several years.
One of eight regional fishery councils in the United States, the North Pacific council has responsibility for groundfish fisheries in Alaska. The National Marine Fisheries Service directly manages the halibut fishery according to limits set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, using recommendations from the council.
If the council approves the management package in October, it will be forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review and possible adoption. It would likely be implemented no sooner than 2010.
Commercial halibut fishermen are on an individual quota system.
Tiered restrictions on charter boats would only be triggered if they exceeded their allocations. Less severely, charter boat employees could be forbidden from taking fish; more severely, clients could be limited to a one-fish bag limit.
After years of a two-fish bag limit, charter boats were restricted to a smaller-size second fish last year.
Charter captains have said that any reduction in the two-fish bag limit would severely hurt their business, because clients come up expecting two fish.
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