My Turn: Charter fleet should halt its spin on halibut allocation issue

Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I am a salmon troller and own 6,000 pounds of halibut. I must respond to the charter fleet's spin surrounding the halibut allocation issue (Bruce Warner's Dec. 19 My Turn).

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Last year in area 2C, the charter take of halibut increased again to 47 percent over the sport allocation. This exponential charter harvest growth has put 2C over the allowed catch for the region. In Southeast Alaska, that makes the sport harvest closer to 28 percent of the regional quota. Now that large quota reductions are in the future for area 2C, and no significant management for the charter fleet is on the horizon from the North Pacific Management Council, this situation will only get worse before it gets better. Local commercial fishermen, processors and fishing communities will have to sacrifice, again, for largely affluent nonresident charter clients. People who continue to maintain that the sport fleet is only taking 15 percent of the halibut are using statewide numbers to disguise the actual harvest levels for personal financial reasons.

Allocation issues are divisive and complex. As a salmon troller, I have seen my share of allocation battles over king salmon. The Alaska Board of Fisheries during its last four meeting cycles has upheld the current allocation plan, which gives the sport harvest 20 percent of the annual king quota. Even charter fishing advocates on the board have voted repeatedly for this split. The allocation plan has proven to be fair for all the regions' communities. Proportionately, there are less king salmon than halibut to harvest. Talk of a 50/50 split no doubt appeals to the charter fleet, but would be catastrophic to local fishing economies, especially rural communities.

As an Alaskan, I want to see a permanent comprehensive solution that provides stability for both halibut fishing fleets. Ideally the solution would give Alaska anglers greater access to the halibut resource than out-of-state thrill seekers. A solution should recognize commercial fishermen who invested in themselves and Alaska by purchasing individual fishing quotas. A solution also should give the charter fleet a measure of stability instead of the boom and bust economics that have threatened everyone's quality of life in Sitka. Personally, I think free market solutions should be considered as a long-term fix to the costly allocation wars. Just raising the sport allocation will not solve the problem.

Ultimately, halibut is a national resource. The most affordable access to that resource for the general public is still the commercial fishermen. Some fish should always be available for guided anglers. Charter clients will come to Alaska for the sport experience, not just the fish box export trade.

I have yet to see a governor in recent times that has not added up the votes and sold commercial fishermen down the river for their re-election campaign. Every legislator has a charter operation or sport fishermen in his or her district, so limited entry for the charter fleets has never gone anywhere at a state level. Ultimately, commercial fishermen, and yes, charter fishermen will have to pay for this political logjam.

Just look at the situation in Sitka, where saturation of the charter fleet has compounded depletion of halibut (caused in part by a moratorium on short-term rentals); helped drive up real estate prices beyond the reach of middle class residents; and created tensions that manifest in ways from bumper stickers to bar fights to fish box taxes. Many Sitka charter operators think it is time for some limits. In Sitka there is near consensus for charter boat limited entry.

Yet nothing ever happens. The charter fleet should stop shadowboxing commercial fishermen by calling them greedy or misrepresenting the nature of the charter harvest. Instead, the charter fleet should realize it's in the driver's seat for ensuring a stable future. There has never been a successful fishery in Alaska that has not gone to some form of limited entry.

• Bert Bergman is a Sitka resident.



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