A nyone who hangs around a Southeast Alaska harbor for long sees them coming and going constantly in summer, the giddy visitors who plunked down enough cash for a real Alaska experience and a nice, big charter-caught halibut to take home. Along with the cruise ships that deliver so many visitors, the charter fleet has grown and thrived in recent decades.
They catch a lot of fish - and a lot of very big fish - that otherwise could go toward sustaining Alaska's commercial fishery and its hometown processing plants.
At the same time, the commercial fleet that helped found Alaska and still plays a crucial role in a stable economy has become more and more sketchy. The price that a commercial fisherman can expect is not as fixed as what a charter captain can ask year in and year out. Getting on the water in the first place under the commercial regulations is an expensive enough proposition.
Which leads to a serious question: Why is the charter fleet not expected to play by the same rules as the commercial fishermen? If there's a good reason, state officials need to do a better job enunciating it. As it is, it appears Alaska wants its charter operators to have free rein, potentially at the expense of their commercial counterparts.
Last week the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to reject individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, for halibut charters. The IFQ is a management tool that commercial fishermen are asked to operate under to conserve the fishery, fishing under a shares program allowing them a certain catch level.
The responses from the business community were predictable: Peter Karwowski of the Alaska Charter Association said the vote is a harbinger of a bright future for charters, and that there's no reason the industry can't grow; Kathy Hansen of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, a commercial fishing group, said it throws the industry into disarray and uncertainty.
What is now certain is that the commercial fleet will be limited in its catch, while the charter fleet will not have similar limitations. Talk of reducing bag limits or keeping charter crews from participating in the creel won't set the same kind of limitations on the tourist fishing trade as have been set on the traditional fishery. As a matter of fairness, and of conservation, the council should reconsider.