Halibut charters could see 'limited entry'

Plan intended to stabilize charter sector; new businesses started after 2005 won't qualify

Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009

Next summer could be the first tourist season with a limited fleet of charter vessels.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

After nearly two decades of discussing it, federal fishery managers this week published a draft of the limited entry program for Southeast and Southcentral halibut charters.

Charter captains and commercial fishermen in these two areas have fought for years over halibut, and the fight's far from over. When the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, issues a one-halibut bag limit again this year, expect more war. But limited entry, also known as a moratorium on new charter vessels, is a development that has support on both sides.

"I've been encouraging the (North Pacific Fishery Management) Council to pass it, and hoping for it," said Rick Bierman, spokesman for the Juneau Charter Boat Operators Association. "I'm pleased."

"It's a necessary step, and I think it's in the charter fishery's best interest to get it in place," said Jev Shelton, a spokesman for the Halibut Coalition of commercial fishermen.

NMFS says limited entry is supposed to stabilize the charter sector, which has grown leaps and bounds in the last 15 years and overshot its guideline harvest level each year since 2004.

The proposal is modeled on Alaska's commercial fisheries, most of which are regulated under limited entry. Individuals or businesses that took out anglers both historically - in qualifying years 2004 or 2005 - and recently will qualify for permits.

"What the Council is looking for here are the steady-Eddies, the ones who have been in business for a while," Jay Ginter of NMFS said.

NMFS doesn't know quite how many that is, though. In Southeast, 677 businesses turned in logbooks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2004 or 2005.

The rules mean people who got into the charter business after 2005 won't qualify, and some may have invested in a business they can't continue unless they buy someone else's permit.

"It's not really designed to be punitive to these people," Ginter said. "It's just that the council has to draw the line someplace."

There's another kind of permit, one that's designed to help 18 smaller communities in Southeast and 14 in Southcentral grow charter businesses instead of limit them.

These communities can form nonprofit "community quota entities" that get four free halibut charter permits - but the catch is that trips taken have to start or end in the town where the permit is.

In Southeast, that's Angoon, Coffman Cove, Edna Bay, Hollis, Hoonah, Hydaburg, Kake, Kassan, Klawock, Metlakatla, Meyers Chuck, Pelican, Point Baker, Port Alexander, Port Protection and Whale Pass.

Bierman is hoping the moratorium on new charters will be enough of a limit on the industry to keep Southeast's daily bag limit at two halibut per angler. Charters fought a one-fish limit last year in court, and they expect to have to fight a similar rule this year.

There are, however, ideological objections to the program. Three Eagles Charters owner Tom Dawson is against limited entry altogether for charters, even though he's one of the captains who can benefit.

"I've been here for 18 years and I'm entitled? I don't believe in entitlements," he said. "The rules should apply the same for everybody."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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