Southeast guides face one-halibut limit, again

Agency fixes process challenged by lawsuit and reissues the rule

Posted: Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Southeast's charter fishing guides successfully fought off a one-fish daily bag limit for their clients this past summer with a lawsuit in a Washington, D.C., court. Now it's back.

The lawsuit challenged the process, not the rule's merit. So the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fixed the procedural problem and reissued the rule.

"Sport charter fishing has grown in Southeast Alaska while halibut abundance has decreased," said Doug Mecum, NOAA's Fisheries Service acting regional administrator for Alaska. "We're proposing to reduce the charter halibut catch to protect the halibut resource."

If finalized, the proposed rule would take effect this spring.

"Don't surprise me one little bit," said Mike Bethers, a Juneau charter boat captain who is getting out of the business partly because of the restrictions.

"All these horse-crap regulations take the fun out of it," he said. "I'm ready to do more fishing for myself and do a lot less worrying about it."

Juneau Charter Boat Association spokesman Rick Bierman said he didn't know whether guides would have the money to mount another lawsuit.

Charter clients' bag limit has been two fish for years. NOAA managers said they are halving it because Southeast's charter sector has exceeded its allocation of halibut by more than 40 percent each year since 2004.

NOAA is supposed to regulate the fishery to numbers set by other agencies. The International Pacific Halibut Commission studies abundance and sets annual catch limits for each area, from Alaska to California. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decides what percentage each sector gets.

The council allotted Southeast charters 1.43 million pounds a year from 2004 through 2007. But the sector caught between 1.75 million and 1.95 million pounds of halibut.

In 2008, abundance was down, so the charter guideline harvest was reduced to 0.93 million pounds. But the bag limit was unchanged. NOAA managers expect the harvest guideline was blown again this year.

Next year, the charters' guideline harvest may be lower than 800,000 pounds, Mecum said.

Commercial halibut fishermen are expecting to be allowed to take less fish, too. Their catch has already been reduced in the last several years, from nearly 11 million pounds a year between 2004 to 2006, to just more than 6 million pounds for 2008.

The charter sector is tricky to manage. The total harvest isn't known until after the season is done since NOAA managers rely on mail-in angler surveys, not real-time data. So the fishery can't be closed on a dime to prevent overharvest, as commercial fisheries are. It's also tricky because Lower 48 anglers plan their Alaska fishing trips one or two years in advance and don't want to be surprised by late-breaking restrictions, Mecum said.

"The need for stability, and the need to plan ahead, are very important goals," Mecum said.

Charter captains were gloomy about the bag limit. It compounded their worries about whether people would still want to spend thousands of dollars to fish as the economy tanks. The booking season isn't over yet, but several captains said they're so far seeing fewer trips and more cancellations, even from longtime regulars.

"When you lose the momentum of your regulars, you take the core out of the business. Our fixed costs are going to be the same no matter what," Bierman said. "There's charter boats for sale all over Southeast."

Todd Wicks of Bear Track Charters in Juneau said one client, who booked a week of fishing for 2009, said he'd rebook in Canada if the bag limit was one fish. Wicks was preparing Monday to call him and try to persuade him to stay.

Charter captains say their well-heeled clients spend money on hotels, rental cars, air fares, restaurants and other Alaska businesses. In a letter to NOAA this year, written on behalf of the charter guides, Wicks' client said he spent $31,200 in Alaska this year.

"We need to have people realize how it's affecting our economy as a whole, not just Mr. Todd Wicks, the captain," Wicks said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.





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