Halibut is a hot commodity for Alaska fishermen but it is swimming into a maelstrom.
The halibut harvest by Southeast Alaska charter boat operators has grown to the point this year that it could exceed its guideline harvest limit set by federal regulators in 2003.
That could trigger a crackdown by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council next spring, according to some concerned fishermen.
The North Pacific council, which is largely geared toward the commercial fishing industry, has been trying to regulate the growth of the halibut charter fleet for nearly a decade.
"Why should one industry be totally unregulated and every other industry be highly regulated?" asks Jim Preston, a Juneau charter boat captain who favors the council's controversial proposal to regulate his fleet.
Despite eight years of review and 8,000 public comments, the council's 2001 vote to turn the charter fleet into a limited-entry program has remained embroiled in a political stalemate.
"It's a huge deal for the state," said Stephanie Madsen, the North Pacific council chairwoman. "I can understand why people are concerned - on either side."
The council's plan to create individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, for the charter fleet is the first-ever limited-entry fishery for charter boats in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
To the consternation of some commercial fishing organizations, the National Marine Fisheries Council has not authorized the limited-entry program in the past four years. Furthermore, the agency's top administrator Bill Hogarth recently asked the North Pacific council to "reaffirm" its original decision.
Much is at stake in the council's next step. The council will discuss how to respond to Hogarth's letter in October.
Many in the charter fleet say the new program would make their business too costly. They should not be subject to the same limitations as longliners who also target halibut, they say.
But longliners and other commercial fishermen believe the now-unchecked growth by the charter fleet has the potential to destroy their halibut fishery. Some commercial fishermen are paying off state-approved loans they used to buy shares in Alaska's limited-entry commercial halibut fishery.
"To have their fish reallocated to another group of people is blatantly unjust," said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka.
The limited-entry program designed by the North Pacific Council would allow the charter industry to grow and even purchase shares in the total halibut catch from commercial longliners. In contrast, longliners would not be allowed to purchase shares from the charter fleet.
Sportfishermen took about 9 million pounds of halibut whereas the commercial fishermen took 73 million pounds in 2003, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
There are some concerns, however, about gaps in the data collected on the charter fleet, Madsen and others said last week.
Behnken said the main culprit for any data gaps is the four-year delay in approving the new program.
Many charter operators and some of their customers are lobbying against the IFQ program because it would raise their operating costs and require people who are new to the fishery to buy into the program, whereas longtime charter boat captains would be given shares of the harvest.
"It's simply an effort by commercial fishermen to choke off (the charter industry)," complained Bob Penney, a sportfish advocate from Soldotna and a former North Pacific council member. He vigorously fought the proposed rule in 2001.
Penney estimates he would have to pay $50 to $75 more to go out on a charter boat under the proposed limited-entry program.
The top brass at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington, D.C., want the North Pacific council - which comprises industry, state and federal officials - to reaffirm its support for the program because of the passage of time, data gaps and the ongoing controversy about the charter IFQ program.
The North Pacific council will spend nearly two full days in October in Anchorage reviewing the matter. Four council members weren't seated on the council in 2001.
"That puts a lot of stress on them. We are going to have a Halibut 101 session," said Madsen, the council chairwoman.
Madsen said she'd be inclined to take a serious look if more data is needed to evaluate the charter fleet's current harvest levels. "If the data's not there, let's look at it now. Otherwise, we could be facing this same situation in a year," Madsen said.
Many fishermen say they are still reeling from Hogarth's unusual request for the North Pacific council to revisit its decision. They blame it on political pressure.
"It really puts the entire council process on shaky grounds, I'm afraid. It's a terrible precedent," said Jev Shelton, a Juneau longliner.
"All along, people have been slowing this down," said Preston, the Juneau charter boat captain who favors the council's plan to regulate the charter harvest.
Meanwhile, the charter fleet has been growing rapidly. Its harvest grew by 43 percent between 1993 and 2003, according to the pro-IFQ Halibut Coalition.
The Halibut Coalition, of which Behnken is a member, claims that without regulation, charter growth could eventually displace the entire longline fishery.
The commercial longline fleet in Southeast Alaska and Southcentral Alaska continue to catch most of the available halibut. While the longliners tend to fish in remote areas, small-boat charter operators are generally confined to 15 to 20 percent of the vast fishing grounds.
In some cases, heavy concentrations of fishing boats in high-use areas near ports have led to localized depletion of halibut in areas such as Sitka Sound and lower Cook Inlet.
At the same time, commercial fishermen in the IFQ program have slowed down their fishing and some are fishing closer to ports. That has also triggered additional conflict between the two fleets, Madsen said.
Preston, the Juneau charter boat captain, says that if some steps aren't taken soon to regulate the charter fleet now, the North Pacific council will crack down on him and his customers with measures such as reducing the individual bag limit to one halibut per day or shortening the fishing season.
"They don't really understand the whole picture," Preston said, of the charter operators who don't want to be regulated like commercial IFQ fishermen.
Preston said if the original plan to create individual catch limits for the charter fleet fails, he will propose to the council a moratorium on new charter boats or a limited licensing program.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.