While local fishermen are often mired in the bitter fights over allocation, Outside scientists laud the Alaska halibut fishery as an example for everybody else.
"You guys are way ahead of the rest of the country," said scientist Steven Gaines. "Way ahead."
In today's edition of Science, a new study finds that managing fisheries with individual fishing quotas, as Alaska has done since 1995, can reverse fisheries collapses.
The same data set, spanning 53 years and 11,000 fisheries, was used two years ago to project there might be no more fish by 2048.
Looking for solutions, researchers pulled out the catch data by management scheme and found fisheries that had converted to "catch share" systems, like the Alaska IFQ system, were reviving.
The authors are Gaines and Christopher Costello from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and John Lynham of the University of Hawaii.
"It's the silver lining that we have been looking for. Now we need to implement these solutions more widely," said Boris Worm, author of the first, more pessimistic study.
Longtime Juneau fisherman Jev Shelton remembers the pre-IFQ days, pre-1995.
"It was really crazy toward the end, because the halibut fishery was open for only 24 hours at a time," he said.
Derby-style fishing led to overfishing and fewer openings each year. Near the end, all the fish came in at once, overloading processors and reportedly wasting fish. All the fish was sold at once, glutting the market; the rest of the year, no fresh halibut could be found. And because the 24-hour openers were planned in advance, they didn't plan on weather. People died in accidents.
Now, prices have leaped at least sixfold since the worst derby days. People can stretch out their fishing. Fishery managers can track the fishing more closely and accurately.
"There probably are some bits and pieces of injustice around the edges," Shelton said. "But overall it's proved to be a system that's allowed virtually every fishery in Alaska to be managed sustainably."
Instituting the quota system required more time and monitoring, said Sue Salveson, NOAA Fisheries Service official.
"All these programs are complex," she said. "But they're doable."
Fishing quotas date back to the 1980s in New Zealand, Australia and Iceland. More than 90 percent of the rest of the world's fisheries are not managed with any overall catch limits.
But the authors of the Science article also emphasize what Alaska fishermen and fish managers know well: The devil is in the details. The decision of who gets to fish, and how much fish they get, is "a big enough political challenge that ... makes that transition really difficult," said Gaines.
There, too, Alaska's halibut fishery is exemplary. It has what the study's authors call a "partial implementation" of the catch-sharing system they say works so well.
"There's an opportunity for these things to have even better benefits," Gaines said. "You're seeing that happening in your backyard, I think."
Commercial halibut fishing has been managed with transferable individual quotas since 1995. Meanwhile, the charter fishing industry is guided by a daily bag limit. The last decade has seen a fierce fight over fish between the charter and commercial sectors.
Federal fishery managers are looking at a moratorium on new charter vessels starting in 2010. That's not the same as issuing individual quotas, but will limit who can guide anglers.
That will spark grievances among those who are excluded, just as the move to fishing quotas did in 1995.
But some charter boat owners see it as a good thing - or at least inevitable.
"It may be time for a moratorium in some of the areas," said Mike Devers, former commercial fisherman who now runs charters. "Whether you like it or not, it's coming, probably."
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or email@example.com.
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