Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are frustrated that four years after it approved the controversial halibut charter IFQ plan, federal regulators still haven't drafted regulations.
The council voted 9-1 Friday to urge National Marine Fisheries Service Director Bill Hogarth to act on the plan for Individual Fishing Quotas, or IFQs, which the council approved in 2001. The U.S. secretary of commerce, who oversees the fisheries service, must approve NMFS regulations that would establish the IFQ program.
The controversy over the creation of IFQs has pitted Alaska commercial longliner and charter fleet fishermen against each other in a struggle over the future allocation of halibut in federal waters.
After a four-year lag, Hogarth sent a letter to the council earlier this year asking it to "reaffirm" its support for IFQs for Alaska halibut charter fishermen. On Friday the council rebuffed Hogarth's request for the reaffirmation.
"We basically expressed our displeasure about the four-year delay that NMFS has had these regulations and failed to take any action on them," said McKie Campbell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, on Monday.
Despite its harsh words for NMFS, the council's own stance on halibut IFQs appears to be wavering. The council's response to Hogarth "does not confirm support, nor does it deny support" for its 2001 decision, according to the motion passed Friday.
On Friday, council member Ed Rasmussen said he will propose a motion to the council in December to rescind its 2001 decision.
The council's makeup has changed since 2001 and the plan will likely face stronger opposition in December.
"It's sort of bizarre or ironic ... to have this administrative process continue on," said Juneau commercial fisherman Jev Shelton, who attended the council meeting last week.
"You had a whole lot of people testifying, and (sitting) on the council, who weren't really familiar with the volume and the quality of work that had gone on four years ago," Shelton said.
The state isn't supporting the charter IFQ plan at this time.
"I think we are all worried about the legal vulnerabilities created by the secretary's delay," Campbell said.
"I think there are some issues we need to fix in the halibut charter fleet," he said. "But as I go down the reasons why you normally (establish quota-based programs) ... creating safe conditions, adding value ... this doesn't seem to meet those reasons."
Charlie Wilber, chairman of the Seafood Producers Cooperative, was one of several Sitka-based commercial fishermen who told the council that the halibut charter problem had grown worse in the four-year interval since the council first adopted the plan.
"We are now witnesses of an erosion of halibut flowing from our very tightly regulated commercial halibut fishery to the ever-expanding charter fishery," Wilber said.
Rene Cook, who testified on behalf of her husband, Sitka Charter Boat Operators Association Denny Cook, said her opposition to charter IFQs was basically unchanged.
Cook and many others in the charter industry argued that the current management system adequately protects the halibut resource. She is more concerned about the estimated 40 percent of charter fishermen who won't qualify for IFQs, and won't be able to afford to buy into the program.
If approved by federal regulators, the charter IFQ program would be the first quota-based fishery for a charter fleet in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.