Fight over halibut heats up

Commercial fishermen worried about growing charter boat catches

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The fight between commercial halibut fishermen and charter boat operators is heating up again with commercial fishermen pushing for limits on charter boat catches.

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The issue is being discussed this week at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The 11-member federal panel is meeting in Anchorage.

The issue is a tough one for the council: How to divide a limited halibut resource between the commercial fleet and the charter boat operators.

Commercial halibut fishermen say a growing charter boat catch is especially worrisome in Southeast Alaska and also is being felt in Southcentral waters around the Kenai Peninsula.

The commercial fishermen are urging restrictions on the charter catch, including the idea of limiting charter boat customers to one fish per day instead of two, beginning next year.

Charter boat operators say the measure could sink their businesses and deprive tourists and locals of the fun and food of a day's saltwater fishing.

Right now, the commercial operators catch the lion's share, with a harvest limit of 35.8 million pounds this year. The charter catch approached 6.1 million pounds.

Linda Behnken, a Sitka commercial fisherman and former council member, said commercial fishermen are facing a crisis because the commercial fleet must abide by annual catch limits and the charter fleet doesn't.

She and other fishermen complain that gridlocked federal regulators haven't solved the conflict.

Stephanie Madsen, who chairs the North Pacific council, said the panel is working on a variety of long-range options to settle the rift, including a ban on new charter boats. But she noted that in other parts of the country, commercial fishermen don't enjoy such a large majority of the available fish.

Charter catches are surging. According to state figures, charter boats in Southeast and Southcentral landed a combined 333,036 halibut this year, an 81 percent jump since 1999.

United Fishermen of Alaska, the state's largest commercial fishing group, told the council the charter fleet this year caught $3.9 million worth of halibut that should have gone to the commercial fleet.

Tina McNamee, who runs a Sitka fishing lodge with four boats, said her customers are almost exclusively Lower 48 people who might not return if the bag limit is cut. She said she's not against imposing some sort of overall catch limit on the charter fleet so long as the split between the commercial and charter sectors is "fair and equitable."

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