ANCHORAGE - Subsistence halibut harvests from a centuries old fishery will soon be legal.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously Thursday to recognize and regulate a subsistence halibut fishery that biologists estimate harvests 1.5 million pounds of fish annually in coastal Alaska waters.
Once the regulations are in effect, subsistence users will not need sport fishing permits to harvest halibut.
What the council has done is "to authorize a practice that has been going on for thousands of years," said Jay Ginter, chief of regulatory operations for the Alaska region of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Normally regulations try to change human behavior, (but) in this case, we are trying to get the regulations to conform with human behavior," Ginter said.
It will probably be 2003 or 2004 before regulations for the new subsistence fishery are in effect, Ginter said.
"This has been a collaborative effort by subsistence users, other user groups and regulatory agencies," said David Benton, council chairman. "The state should look at this action and say that's the way we ought to resolve subsistence issues statewide. Subsistence is a legitimate use. We ought to resolve it and get on with it."
Studies on how to regulate subsistence halibut fishing in the waters off of Alaska have been ongoing since 1996 by the federal council. In 2000, the council officially recognized that halibut was being harvested as sport fish. At the request of the federal panel, the Alaska Board of Fisheries then made recommendations on gear and harvest limits, to address local needs and perceived management issues.
A detailed environmental assessment and impact review prepared for the council by the National Marine Fisheries Service notes that as many as 82,000 Alaska residents participate in this fishery.
The measure approved by the council sets no annual limit on subsistence halibut, except in the Sitka Sound area.
The council action also direct development of community harvest permits to federally recognized tribes and to other local governments of rural communities that have recognized cultural and traditional use of subsistence halibut.
One thorny issue facing the council was whether to change the Cook Inlet non-subsistence fishing area southern boundary, north of Seldovia and south of Homer. The boundary mirrors the area currently open to state subsistence fishing for groundfish.
The action kept the recommended boundaries, thereby avoiding "a quagmire of managing commercial subsistence and sport fishing in the state's largest urban area of Cook Inlet," said council member Bob Penney.
"We got past that minefield," Penney said. "This is fair to the resource and the public user."
The council meeting continues Friday, with deliberations on crab fisheries.