Alaska's long-awaited federal halibut subsistence fishing program opened Thursday with the ceremonial awarding of the first registration certificate to Harold Martin, former chairman of a Native group that worked to implement the program.
Before Thursday, halibut could be harvested only under sport and commercial fishing regulations. No method was set up to keep track of how many halibut were being used for subsistence. The new 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.
Under the new program, subsistence halibut fishing is open to members of eligible Alaska Native tribes and residents of eligible rural communities. Participants are allowed to catch 20 fish per day, except for people in areas in the northern Bering Sea, where there is no daily retention limit.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Sheela McLean said the program has received about 500 applications.
In accepting his halibut subsistence certificate from NOAA Fisheries Alaska administrator Jim Balsinger, Martin, 69, noted the push for a regulated subsistence program began about 20 years ago.
"This has been a long struggle," he told the audience of several dozen Native leaders and federal workers.
Martin was born and raised in Kake, but has lived in Juneau for more than 20 years. He grew up fishing commercially for salmon and halibut with his family.
Matthew Kookesh, the current chairman of the Alaska Native Halibut Subsistence Working Group, and chairman of the Southeast Alaska Intertribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, received the second halibut registration certificate.
Kookesh exhorted eligible communities to fish their subsistence limits, and not to take unfair advantage of a provision in the regulations that allows participants to receive up to $400 per year in noncommercial exchange for the customary sharing of their fish.
"I don't want to see people putting signs up saying 'Halibut for Sale.' That's not what this is about," he said. "The $400 limit is just so we're legal."
The new regulations 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.
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 free certificates are immediately renewable. Users will be permitted to catch 20 fish per day, year-round, using no more than 30 hooks per day.