A federal fisheries council voted 8-3 Friday night to rescind its controversial plan to regulate Alaska's halibut charter fleet in the same fashion as commercial halibut longliners - with individual fishing quotas.
The deciding motion, offered by council member and state Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell, is a boon for charter operators who didn't qualify for "free" quota shares in the halibut catch because they entered the fleet in 2001 or later.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council's vote doesn't eliminate the possibility of individual fishing quotas (IFQs) for the fleet, but several years could pass before a replacement plan is finalized.
"It really puts us into a really unknown, uncertain future," said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, a commercial fishing group that fought on behalf of the IFQ plan.
It's a brighter future for the charter fleet because it doesn't mean new operators - who can't afford to buy quota shares - will get priced out of the business, responded Peter Karwowski, vice president of the Alaska Charter Association, based in Homer.
Karwowski said he didn't see any reason why the charter fishery shouldn't continue to grow.
"I think that what we are trying to do is bring a better plan than IFQs to the table next time," Karwowski said.
A motion narrowly failed 5-6 Friday to keep the IFQ plan but amend it to allow new charter operators to obtain free quota shares.
Instead, the council voted to appoint a working group to evaluate two alternatives: a new allocation scheme setting limits on the number of boats or reducing bag limits; and a revised individual quota plan.
As a result of the vote, Hansen and other halibut longliner fishermen fear an erosion within their own IFQ program.
Commercial fishermen supported halibut IFQs for the charter fleet because they believe without it, the charter industry will continue to grow without check. "I think you'll see a whole lot more gearing up ... . It will be a race to fish in the charter industry," Hansen said.
Such growth could reduce the value of commercial fishermen's quota shares, usually purchased with loans. The reason for this: When the charter fleet's catch increases, the International Pacific Halibut Commission ratchets up its percentage of the total allowable halibut catch.
The current breakdown of the charter-commercial halibut catch in Alaska is roughly 15-85.
Longtime charter operators also worry that too many competitors will cannibalize each other. "I think it's kind of self-defeating," said Steve Daniels, a fishing lodge owner in Pelican who has also been a commercial troller and longliner for 28 years.
Daniels said he is equally invested in commercial quotas and his sport-fishing operation. While commercial prices for halibut have risen under IFQs, the price of a charter boat trip has remained the same since the 1970s, he said.
"We lament change because it hurts somebody ... but it always presents new opportunities, too," Daniels said.
Last year, the charter fleet catch exceeded its guideline harvest level by 22 percent in Southeast Alaska.
The council and the Department of Fish and Game are now pursuing measures they say will do a better job of keeping the fleet under its guideline harvest level.
Possible changes include: no halibut for charter boat skippers and crews on their chartered trips, and reduced bag limits; and reinstatement of Alaska's logbook reporting program for halibut sport fishermen.
Hansen said so far she doesn't have a lot of faith in the council's ability to control the charter fleet because the council doesn't manage the actual fishing season.
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