NOAA keeps two-fish limit on Southeast Alaska halibut

Regulations require that one fish be less than 32 inches long

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2007

ANCHORAGE - In an ongoing dispute between commercial fishermen and the growing halibut charter business, a federal agency has issued new regulations keeping the current bag limit for guided trips at two fish a day in southeast Alaska.

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However, the regulations require that one of those fish can be no more than 32 inches long, a small to medium-sized fish producing a 5-6 pound fillet.

"We basically are forced to keep one throwback," Rick Bierman, spokesman for the Juneau Charter Association, said Wednesday.

The intended effect of the new requirement is to reduce the number of pounds of halibut harvested by charter boat fishermen in southeast Alaska while at the same time minimizing any impacts on their businesses, federal officials said.

"The charter operators indicated that their clients believed that maintaining the traditional two fish bag limit is an important part of their Alaska fishing experience," said Jason Gasper, fishery management specialist for National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Juneau, who worked on the new regulations.

The size limit is going to cause some problems, Bierman said.

He owns a small fishing lodge on an island near Juneau where guests pay $500 a day. For that money, they can expect to be able to take home some halibut to share with family and friends, he said.

"We just hope this is a temporary thing and we can come up with a permanent solution and get back to two fish, any size," he said.

Bierman expects some charter boat customers will head to other areas of Alaska, like Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound, where they can get two fish of any size.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that the size restriction will reduce the overall harvest by charter vessel fishermen in southeast Alaska by about 518,000 pounds.

Earlier, the Seattle-based International Pacific Halibut Commission had proposed reducing the catch limit to one fish a day for charter boat anglers - a move that angered charter boat operators in southcentral and southeast Alaska.

The halibut commission is responsible for protecting halibut stocks off the U.S. and Canadian coasts. Its decision reached earlier this year to cut the charter bag limit was subject to approval by federal agencies.

NOAA Fisheries this week issued the new regulations for southeast Alaska. The regulations took effect June 1. The charter halibut fishing season ends Dec. 31.

However, the new regulations could be superseded by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council now meeting in Sitka.

NOAA did not take action in southcentral Alaska because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game already is trying to reduce the harvest by prohibiting skippers and crew from keeping halibut and limiting the number of customer lines that can be fished off a charter vessel at any one time.

The commercial fleet is subject to a harvest cap whereas the charter boats are not.

Commercial halibut fishermen in southeast are being allowed 8.5 million pounds this year, down from 10.6 million pounds in 2006.

United Fishermen of Alaska, the state's largest commercial fishing group, has told the council that charter boats are catching millions of dollars worth of halibut that should have gone to the commercial fleet.

The new regulations are not proven, said Kathy Hansen, commercial representative on the Charter Halibut Stakeholder Committee, which hopes to present its proposal for a more long-term solution to the council this winter.

"This type of approach has never been used before. It is all guesswork on whether it will really have the effects they think it will have," Hansen said.

The charter fishing industry is growing in southeast and southcentral Alaska. In 2005, there were 381 guided charter halibut businesses operating 654 vessels in southeast. The state last year estimated the charter industry in that part of the state was 42 percent over the guideline harvest level. For southcentral Alaska, it was 9 percent.

Hansen said the new regulations for southeast Alaska, if they work as intended, will only reduce the charter harvest by 22 percent.

Bierman said a long-term solution needs to be found.

"We are willing to live with this for a year until we come up with something better," Bierman said. "It is not what we need."

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