Southeast's charter boat operators got official word Thursday that their clients this year will be restricted to one halibut per day, after more than 30 years of a two-fish bag limit.
The U.S. Secretary of Commerce signed off on the measure, which will take effect June 1. But Southeast guides have been concerned about its effect on their business since the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed it in December last year.
The bag limit does not apply to unguided fishermen, who may still catch two halibut per day.
Tom Dawson, for whom halibut is usually 10 percent of his Juneau-based charter business, said he was worried people wouldn't pay to go halibut fishing for one fish. Four people pay $1,100 for a six-hour trip on his boat.
"A thousand dollar trip and they come home with one fish (each)? I don't think so," he said.
In official comments on the measure, lodge owners told NMFS that the measure was unfair because it would hurt larger charter-based businesses more than smaller operators.
Julie Scheurer, fishery management specialist at NMFS, said the lodge owners were probably correct, and that charter business in general would also likely suffer.
"Lots of fishery management actions, unfortunately, have negative economic impacts," Scheurer said. "And our goal is to minimize those impacts as much as possible."
However, NMFS didn't have much choice in this measure, she said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service directly manages the halibut fishery according to limits set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, using recommendations from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Allocation among fishing sectors has been highly controversial, pitting commercial fishermen against charter boat operators. The newly approved bag limit is intended to implement rules established in 2000.
While the commercial catch is regulated with individual annual quotas, charter-boat clients have a daily bag limit and a "soft" total catch, called the Guideline Harvest Level.
Last year, charter clients caught more than 1.7 million pounds of fish, according to NMFS, exceeding the guideline of 1.4 million pounds. This year, the guideline harvest level is 931,000 pounds.
Of the 13 alternatives NMFS examined - including different types of regulation such as annual limits and fishing line limits - only the one-fish bag limit would bring the charter boats' catch down to that level, Scheurer said.
Longliner Linda Behnken said the measure was needed to keep local halibut stocks from being overfished.
"None of us are happy to see low abundance of halibut. Economically, it's painful for everybody," said Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association in Sitka. "But conservation comes first, and economics come second."
Yet Kimberly Tebrugge, spokeswoman for the Charter Halibut Task Force, a statewide association of charter operators, said NMFS made it clear that halibut stocks were healthy. She said the guideline harvest limit was a matter of allocation, not conservation.
"The charter industry realizes they will take significant cuts. And some people will lose their businesses because of this limit," Tebrugge said.
Some suspect their out-of-state clients will simply fish Southcentral, where the guided bag limit will still be two halibut.
Toni Wisner, a Juneau charter boat owner whose business is 25 to 30 percent halibut, said she didn't yet know what effect the bag limit would have. That would depend on whether the clients were there mostly for the experience, or primarily to catch a lot of fish.
Some of her regular clients hadn't called yet, she said.
"I think they're holding off, waiting to see what will happen," she said.
Many of Wisner's clients are regulars from past years whose loyalty she relies on. She'll probably offer more salmon-halibut combination trips now. And good communication about the regulations will be crucial, she said.
Dawson, a charter operator for 17 years, said the new bag limit's effect could be larger than just the hit on this year's earnings.
"If I don't get people to go halibut fishing this year, I'm going to lose out on ever halibut fishing again," he said.
That's because in a few years, the charter operators are set to switch to a limited-entry system. Businesses that did halibut charters in 2005, 2006 and the year before limited-entry implementation - either this year or next year - will be issued quotas. Others will have to buy their way into the system.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.