Residents of rural communities and Alaska Native tribal groups with a tradition of subsistence fishing will receive an allowance of 20 halibut per day under new federal halibut subsistence fishing regulations that will take effect May 15.
The regulations are an attempt to codify what many Alaskans were doing already: fishing halibut for personal use and in some cases exceeding the personal use catch limit of two per day. While Alaska does have regulated subsistence fisheries, mainly for salmon, halibut has never been included.
"The regulations ... were advocated by people from smaller communities who were engaged in subsistence fishing and who on occasion had been apprehended for allegedly violating the sport fishing regulations," said Phil Smith, program administrator for NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region's restricted access management program. "They were saying, 'Look, we weren't sport fishing, we were subsistence fishing,' to which the response is, 'I'm sorry, there's no authority for doing what you were doing.' "
The new regulations, created by NOAA's North Pacific Fishery Management Council, set out that authority. They recognize 117 communities and 120 tribal groups as eligible for subsistence halibut fishing. In Juneau, members of the Aukquan Traditional Council, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, and the Douglas Indian Association will be eligible. They will not, however, be allowed to fish in the waters directly off Juneau or Douglas Island, according to the regulations. Subsistence halibut fishing is not permitted in Stephens Passage south of town, in Chatham Strait, Icy Strait and Lynn Canal west and north of Berners Bay.
Who's eligible in Southeast?
Rural communities: Angoon, Coffman Cove, Craig, Edna Bay, Elfin Cove, Gustavus, Haines, Hollis, Hoonah, Hydaburg, Hyder, Kake, Kasaan, Klawock, Klukwan, Metlakatla, Meyers Chuck, Pelican, Petersburg, Point Baker, Saxman, Sitka, Skagway, Tenakee Springs, Thorne Bay, Whale Pass, Wrangell.
Tribal organizations: Angoon Community Association, Craig Community Association, Chilkoot Indian Association (Haines), Hoonah Indian Association, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, Aukquan Traditional Council (Juneau), Tlingit-Haida Central Council (Juneau), Douglas Indian Association (Douglas), Organized Village of Kake, Organized Village of Kasaan, Ketchikan Indian Corp., Klawock Cooperative Association, Chilkat Indian Village (Klukwan), Metlakatla Indian Community-Annette Island Reserve, Petersburg Indian Association, Organized Village of Saxman, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Skagway Village, Wrangell Cooperative Association.
Regulators at NOAA Fisheries estimate about 80,000 men, women and children will be eligible to subsistence fish, but only between 10,000 and 15,000 will register, said NOAA spokeswoman Sheela McLean.
McLean said the agency expects between 500,000 and 1 million pounds of halibut will be caught in the first year of the regulations.
"What this new program will do will be to recognize that subsistence use and allow us to account for it. We don't expect a significant increase in the halibut harvest overall," she said.
There are no figures for how many halibut were caught previously for subsistence use.
Under the new regulations, a subsistence halibut registration certificate issued for a member of a rural community will last two years, and those for members of tribes will last four years. The certificates, which are free, are immediately renewable. Users will be permitted to catch 20 fish per day, year-round, using no more than 30 hooks per day.
"It's important because it's popular culture of Southeast. Native people have been doing it for years," said Matthew Kookesh, chairman of the Southeast Alaska Intertribal Fish and Wildlife Commission. "The subsistence halibut fishery was probably the first fishery before commercial fishing."
After the new regulations have been in place for a year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council may consider recommendations for changes within different regions that would raise or lower catch limits in those areas depending on the stock, Smith said.
People interested in applying for the certificates can contact the National Marine Fisheries Service at (800) 304-4846.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.