Council addresses growing halibut charter fleet

Officials say boats are far exceeding annual catch limits

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The North Pacific Fishery Management Council issued its decision Friday on how the growing halibut charter fleet in southeast Alaska should be managed.

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The council limited the charter halibut catch in southeast Alaska to two fish a day, with one of those being no longer than 32 inches. The council also restricted the charter boat take to four halibut per guided sport angler each year.

The previous limit was two halibut a day, any size. There was no yearly limit.

For more than a decade, commercial fishermen and charter boat owners have looked for a solution to concerns that the charter fleet was taking too many halibut and exceeding their allocation at the expense of the commercial fleet.

The council, meeting this week in Sitka, augmented regulations issued recently by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.

"We believe it is a responsible direction the council has taken," Behnken said Friday following the meeting in Sitka. "It certainly is overdue to manage the fleet to the guideline harvest levels. It addresses our concerns about overharvesting by the charter sector."

Behnken said the charter halibut fleet in southeast Alaska has doubled in the last decade. Last year, the fleet was allotted 1.4 million pounds and exceeded that limit by 620,000 pounds, she said.

If the abundance of halibut in Southeast Alaska drops by 15 percent over baseline levels, the charter harvest also will drop by 15 percent, Behnken said. That won't be known until January when the stock assessments are available.

Federal officials have said the intended effect of the new requirements is to reduce the number of pounds of halibut harvested by charter boat fishermen while at the same time minimizing any impacts on their businesses.

Over three days, more than 100 people addressed the council, Behnken said.

"I think it will go a long way to alleviate the tension," she said of the council's action.

That didn't appear to be the case for Rick Bierman, fishing lodge owner and halibut specialist for the Juneau Charter Boat Operators Association.

"I think the council better get their checkbooks out and begin buying charter boats because they are putting us out of business," he said. "This is going to kill us."

Bierman said the problem goes back 14 years when the charter industry first asked for a moratorium to limit the size of the fleet. Nothing was done, he said.

"As the charter fleet grew and their take grew, the commercial fishermen got fewer and fewer fish. That made them mad because they were getting fewer fish and they weren't getting compensated."

Even so, Bierman said commercial fishermen harvest between 83 and 85 percent of the allotted halibut. The charter fleet gets between 15 and 17 percent.

"We still aren't taking that much," he said.

The Seattle-based International Pacific Halibut Commission had proposed reducing the catch limit to one fish a day for charter boat anglers.

The council's recommendation will be written into regulation by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The new regulations are intended to take effect in 2008.

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