ANCHORAGE - New federal rules that take effect in February to protect the halibut fishery in Alaska are expected to cut about a third of the halibut sport charters in Homer, Seward and Valdez, the Anchorage Daily News reported Monday.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is restricting the number of charter boats and anglers aboard. Boat owners must demonstrate they participated in the fishery in 2004 or 2005 as well as 2008 to qualify for a permit.
The restrictions were recommended in 2007 and grew out of concerns the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council first had in 1993 about the growing number of halibut taken by charter boats.
Growth in the charter harvest had to be offset by a lowering of the commercial catch limit.
"Commercial stakeholders asked for a cap on the charter harvest, the fastest-growing segment of the sport fishery," Homer biologist Scott Meyer, the statewide halibut and bottomfish coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote on his agency's website.
"The problem was that charter harvest was deducted 'off the top' of each year's allowable fishery removals before setting the commercial catch limit."
Some of the trends that spawned the restrictions have weakened or reversed.
Between 2007 and 2009, for instance, the south-central sport halibut harvest in what's known as Area 3A between Kodiak and Juneau declined 24 percent to 4.7 million pounds, fueled by the national recession that kept some anglers home. Anglers fishing with charters make up about 57 percent of that harvest.
At the same time, commercial fishermen in the same area captured the majority of the halibut - about 22 million pounds, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
"We're still going ahead with the program," said Rachel Baker, a Juneau-based fisheries specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"There's been a lot of growth, a lot of turnover. By itself, a limited-access program doesn't guarantee a harvest will go down. In fact, it's hard to say what will happen to the harvest," she said.