Regulators approve halibut catch split

Fish to be divided among commercial and charter fleets

Posted: Monday, October 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Federal regulators have approved a plan to apportion available halibut in Southeast Alaska among commercial and charter fleets.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Saturday voted 10-1 for the plan, which also would apply to southcentral Alaska.

The plan approved Saturday could lead to a lower halibut bag limit for charter boat anglers - one halibut instead of two. A limit would kick in during times when the halibut population is low.

The plan is aimed at settling a long-running fish feud between commercial halibut fishermen and charter boat operators who allow thousands of tourists and residents to catch halibut with a rod and reel.

The vote followed three days of public testimony. The plan must be approved by the U.S. Commerce Department secretary.

Commercial fishermen sought the split to limit the growth of charter catches.

Charter boat captains asked the council not to limit the number of fish their clients can take home.

The lone council member voting no, Ed Dersham, said he could not support the plan because it "does not meet the test of fair and equitable."

Dersham has operated a salmon and halibut charter boat business out of Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula.

Charter captains say their customers cannot tolerate a one-fish bag limit and would likely cancel trips.

When federal fishery regulators tried to enforce such a limit this summer in Southeast, where the charter catch is growing strongest, charter boat captains went to court to block the regulation.

Council member Gerry Merrigan, a commercial halibut fisherman from Petersburg, made the winning motion Saturday. He defended his plan as fair to both fleets.

Merrigan said commercial fishermen have strict catch limits that float up or down with halibut abundance but the charter fleet faces no such restrictions.

Part of his plan would allow charter captains to lease catch rights from commercial fishermen to allow charter anglers to keep more than one halibut per day.

Charter captains decry the high cost of leasing. They say the commercial fleet historically has caught the bulk of the halibut and will continue to under the council plan.

The council is made up mostly of government and industry representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon. It helps regulate fisheries off Alaska by making recommendations to the U.S. commerce secretary.

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