Proposed halibut quotas split tourism industry

Posted: Thursday, November 03, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A proposal to limit the number of fish that halibut charter boats can catch has divided Alaska tourism operators.

Board members of the Alaska Travel Industry Association describe it as one of the most contentious issues the organization faced this year.

The state's largest visitor-industry organization surveyed its members in April and found that they were almost evenly divided about halibut charter "individual fishing quotas," or IFQs, said Dave Worrell, communications director.

"We have some members who are adamantly for it and others who are adamantly against it," Worrell said.

After survey results came in, the travel association decided not to take a position on the issue.

"It was a no-win situation," he said.

The proposed IFQ plan would set a catch limit for each charter boat as a way to control the fleet's total harvest. At present, charters have no overall ceiling on how much can be caught. Anglers who use charter boats have a two fish per day limit set by the state.

Commercial halibut fishermen, who already use an IFQ system, say a growing charter catch will shrink the number of fish they can catch.

Critics of a charter plan say IFQs will force boats to raise prices and hurt local economies that rely on sport fishing.

Several coastal towns have sent letters to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the regulatory body that will address the halibut-charter issue in December.

Homer, Whittier, Gustavus and Valdez oppose halibut charter IFQs. Cordova supports them, said Gail Bendixen, a staffer with the North Pacific council.

Homer's and Whittier's chambers of commerce also are opposed, as are the convention and visitor bureaus in Sitka and Kodiak.

The Alaska Charter Association formed in June 2004 to fight the proposal.

While sweeping in its reach, the halibut charter quota plan is not new. After eight years of public debate, the North Pacific council adopted the proposal in 2001 and forwarded it to the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval.

The matter stalled until the top official with the fisheries service asked the council in August to confirm its support for the proposal. William T. Hogarth said such action was needed because years had passed and conditions in the fishery had changed since 2001.

The council responded with a letter saying that it would not confirm or deny support for the plan but that the fisheries service should continue with its rule-making process.

When the 11-member North Pacific council meets in Anchorage next month, Councilman Ed Rasmuson has said he will introduce a motion to kill the charter IFQ proposal.

"It will be a very deciding moment and it could go either way," said Stephanie Madsen, council chairwoman.

Madsen said she expects passionate public testimony.

Alaska has nearly 1,000 halibut charter businesses. Some longtime operators favor individual fishing quotas. Homer Ocean Charter owner Rick Swenson considers halibut charter IFQs inevitable.

"The train is coming into the station. I can be on the tracks and get run over or I can be on board and try to guide it. The people who are against it are late entries," Swenson said.

The old-timers have an advantage. Those who would qualify for halibut charter IFQs are people with a demonstrated catch history from the late 1990s. Those who started after 2000 would have to buy quota if they want to keep fishing.

For someone starting out with no fishing history or personal capital, they would have to take out a bank loan for about $450,000, said Donna Bondioli, president of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and partner in a halibut charter business with her son.

A loan of that size would enable the operator to purchase 24,000 pounds of halibut, enough for two fish a day for six anglers over a 100-day season.

To borrow the money at a 7 percent interest rate over seven years, the debt service would come to about $80,000 a year. To recover that, an operator would have to raise the price of charters by $130, making the typical one-day trip cost $300, Bondioli estimates.

"Economically, it will kill Homer," she said.

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