My turn: Halibut conservation needs cooperation from all users

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alaska halibut are valued by subsistence, commercial and recreational fishermen alike, and all users need to share in the responsibility of conserving this resource. This conservation ethic needs to be reflected when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council votes on a halibut catch sharing plan in October.

Since 1995, commercial setline halibut fishermen in Alaska have operated under a strict individual quota system. Mostly small family operations based in rural communities, the setline fishery is governed by scientifically based quotas that vary from year to year as the abundance of the halibut resource fluctuates. Over the past two years, the Southeast setline quota has been cut 43 percent due to a downward trend in halibut abundance. On top of unprecedented high fuel prices, the cut caused deep pain for the setline fleet. But fishermen accepted it as necessary to protect the long-term sustainability of the resource.

Southeast charter operators also are commercial fishermen who cater almost exclusively to nonresident tourists. Unlike setline fishermen, the charter fleet is allowed to keep fishing even after exceeding its annual allocation but - on paper at least - is expected to reduce its harvest in subsequent years to protect halibut stocks. Despite this conservation objective, the Southeast charter fleet has exceeded its annual allocation for five years running and has actively opposed any harvest restrictions.

In 2007, the International Pacific Halibut Commission imposed a one-halibut daily limit on the Southeast charter fleet to protect stocks. Charter operators fought the restriction, arguing that the North Pacific Council should manage charter halibut. When the council later imposed the same bag limit, charter operators filed a lawsuit in a Washington, D.C., court to suspend the regulation. They won - on a technicality - and the halibut lost. The charter sector maintained its record of not accepting any responsibility for conserving the resource.

At a time when the IPHC is trying to rebuild Southeast halibut stocks, charter operators are believed to have exceeded its catch limit this year by almost one million pounds - twice their limit. Regarding this, the IPHC recently noted, "The lack of adherence by the charter fishery to the targets established by the council in turn frustrates the ability of IPHC to meet its management targets (and) will delay the rebuilding of the Area 2C (Southeast) resource."

Unless effective management controls are implemented, that million pound charter overage will be deducted from next year's setline allocation, forcing fishermen who have already accepted painful quota reductions to pay for overages by a sector that has repeatedly demonstrated disregard for the resource and others who depend on it. Others also will suffer. Since most charter fishing occurs close to Southeast communities, large areas of localized depletion result making it more difficult and costly for nonguided recreational and subsistence fishermen to catch halibut for their own use.

The council can correct this situation by approving a Halibut Catch Sharing Plan based on a few key principles:

Fairness - commercial setline and charter operators should both share in the burden of conservation. Harvest allocation for each commercial sector should be directly tied to the biologically set allowable harvest level as a fixed percentage based on historic harvest levels.

Accountability - management measures must ensure that annual catch limits are not exceeded, with each sector required to promptly report harvests and be held responsible for catches and any overages.

Hold other Alaskans harmless - the halibut catch of subsistence, personal use and nonguided sports fishermen has been taken into account in management plans for years. Individual Alaskans should continue to have the access to the resource and not suffer due to over-harvest by the guided charter sector.

For 15 years, the Halibut Coalition, representing Southeast commercial fishermen and seafood processors, has worked with the IPHC and the council to resolve this dispute fairly and equitably.

Charter operators have consistently impeded the regulatory process, circumvented the responsible authorities and involved a federal judge in fishery decisions. Now they are seeking yet another delay and scheming to extend charter management restrictions to all recreational harvesters.

For the sake of the halibut and the long-term sustainability of the resource, the council must establish clear allocations that reward those who have been good resource stewards and ensure that both commercial sectors, setline and charter, adhere to those allocations.

• Jev Shelton is a Juneau halibut and salmon fisherman and member of the Halibut Coalition.

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