Limited subsistence fishing for halibut will be allowed in Juneau and Ketchikan, by Alaska Native tribal members with an educational or ceremonial permit.
That and other recent changes to the 5-year-old federal halibut subsistence program have found approval with Native leaders.
"The Native community looks at this as an ongoing effort," said Bob Loescher, chairman of the Alaska Native Brotherhood subsistence committee, which has advised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fish managers on the program. "For the most part, what has come out is a fairly reasonable product."
Two years ago, subsistence fishermen caught 1.5 percent of the total halibut harvest in Alaska. But it has an outsize importance for their communities, said subsistence fisherman Floyd Kookesh, who is also on the regional advisory council for the federal program.
"It's priceless," he said.
The new rule from NOAA takes effect Oct. 24. Harvest limits were reduced only in Sitka Sound, which has seen local depletion of halibut in recent years.
The most controversial change affects "customary trade," which allows Native subsistence fishermen to get reimbursements from the community members who eat their fish. Instead of a $400 cap, the new rule narrows reimbursements to the actual expenses of ice, food, fuel and bait.
Ginter said the rule would affect only the few who saw the $400 as a sales target - not most subsistence fishermen.
Loescher said the change might help improve some non-Natives' perception of the program as an alternative - and unfair - commercial fishery.
"There was a perception that the Native community, individuals, were trying to sell subsistence halibut. And that was not their intent," Loescher said.
The program has been controversial. Subsistence fishermen, unlike commercial fishermen, don't have to buy any fishing quota. And they're allowed 30 hooks and 25 halibut per person in many places, far more than the one or two halibut allowed in sport regs.
But before the program was created, federal halibut-fishing rules contemplated that a fisherman might fish for either fun or money. Neither fit the Natives and rural residents who were fishing for sustenance.
"I think that was justifiably perceived as an insult, that they would have to do a traditional activity under a sport license," said Jay Ginter. "This fishery was the original fishery for halibut."
Floyd Kookesh says he's seen the subsistence fishermen in his hometown of Angoon risk dire weather to gather food for their families. And these days they do so at increasingly greater cost with recent fuel prices.
"They're out there in those small craft advisories, because they've got all their gear down and they don't want to bring it back up," he said. "This is not about the money. These guys are just trying to survive."
The new federal rule governing the subsistence halibut fishery in Alaska can be found at alaskafisheries.noaa.gov.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail email@example.com.
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