One-fish limit for charters still in place

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

For now, the new one-halibut bag limit for guided fishermen in Southeast Alaska stands.

Wednesday morning, a federal district judge decided to wait until Tuesday to decide whether to suspend the rule with a temporary restraining order, as requested by a group of Southeast lodge owners and charter operators.

Prince of Wales lodge owner Scott Van Valin headed the list of 11 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the government filed Monday. Plaintiffs asked for a temporary restraining order and a longer-term injunction to keep the bag limit at two fish, as it has been for many years.

The National Marine Fisheries Service ruled in May that guided fishermen in Southeast Alaska would be limited to one halibut per day to keep the charter sector to a guideline harvest of 931,000 pounds, down from a guideline harvest of 1.4 million pounds in 2007.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, NMFS fishery managers and an attorney long involved with halibut issues were in Kodiak for North Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings.

The complaint charges that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, plus the heads of NMFS and NOAA, violated the Northern Pacific Halibut Act and the Administrative Procedures Act in approving the bag limit.

It argues that Gutierrez never justified his decision to hold the charter sector to the 2008 guideline harvest level, a number recommended by the NPFMC, an advisory council.

The complaint also says the rule is neither fair nor equitable to charter operators, but instead "arbitrary and capricious."

Plaintiffs wrote in affidavits that they had refunded money to clients who decided to fish this year elsewhere in Alaska, where the daily limit is still two halibut.

"I have had at least 26 regular clients cancel charter fishing trips they had already booked with me for this year because of the one-fish rule," said Larry "Mac" McQuarrie, owner of Sportsman's Cove, one of the largest lodges in Southeast Alaska.

He said he lost $99,000 in gross income and refunded $4,200 in deposits as a result. Another 10 regular clients, he wrote, declined to book because of the one-fish limit.

Two Homer charter operators, Rex Murphy and Donna Bondioli, said in affidavits that they'd gotten calls from Southeast regulars who said they were switching areas because of the rule.

"Nothing in this rule affects the status of the halibut stocks," said Earl Comstock, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who said NMFS had declared the fish stocks healthy.

But federal fishery managers justified the rule with concerns about conservation.

"These new regulations are needed because charter fishing has grown in Southeast Alaska, while the abundance of halibut has decreased," said Doug Mecum, NOAA's Fisheries Service Alaska region acting administrator, in a May statement.

Commercial halibut fishermen, who have long fought with the charter sector over allocation issues, supported the federal rule and spoke out against the lawsuit. Overages in the charter harvest affect the commercial quota.

"Disturbing is probably the kindest word I could place on it," said Jev Shelton, a Juneau fisherman. "Here is an indication that you have a group of folks who really do not have any fundamental concern with the status of the resource they depend on."

Southeast long-liners also had seen drastic cuts in quota the last two years, he said.

"I don't think you have heard a whimper from the professional halibut fishermen," he said.

The commercial fishing industry group was not a party in the suit, but it sent a legal adviser to observe the Wednesday hearing. Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance director Kathy Hansen said the coalition had not decided whether to try to intervene in the suit.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail

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