Changes Coming to Charter Halibut Industry

Changes are coming to the halibut fisheries in general and to the halibut charter industry in particular.

Based on recommendations by scientists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, overall allowable catches are likely to be reduced in all Alaska halibut areas except 2C (Southeast Alaska). The recommended catch for all Alaska districts would be 18.74 million pounds, down from about 22 million in 2013.

The final numbers will come out of the January IPHC meeting in Seattle. Based on recent history commissioners may adopt quotas that are somewhat higher than the commission’s own scientists’ recommendations but still would likely be significant decreases from 2013, reflecting decreased halibut biomass in the North Pacific. Recommended catch for 2C would be 4.16 million pounds, up from 2.97 million in 2013.

In area 3A the recommended total catch would be about 9.43 million pounds, down from 11.03 million. All other halibut areas in Alaska also will see substantially lower allowable catches.

Halibut biomass has been declining over the last decade, and some in the IPHC think it has bottomed out. Part of the problem is that young fish are growing slower and taking longer to recruit into the fishery. IPHC director Dr. Bruce Leman told a fisheries gathering in December that males now recruit at 14–15 years as opposed to 8–9 years before the decline began. He said that although reasons for the decline have not yet been established, there is a distinct correlation in halibut abundance with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a time series of weather and temperature patterns. Although Leman didn’t mention it in that talk, the dramatic increase in the biomass of arrow tooth flounder—which is both a predator on and a competitor with halibut—has also been implicated in the decrease in halibut biomass.

Under the new Catch Sharing Plan (CSP, see the following story), allocations to the guided sport fish (charter boat) industry also are falling.  The area 2C allocation is anticipated to be 760,000 pounds, down from 780,000 in 2013, and in 3A the charter allocation will be 1.78 million pounds, down substantially from 2.73 million pounds under the previous Guideline Harvest Level allocation.

CSP Is Adopted

Despite stiff opposition from some quarters of the charter industry, NMFS is going ahead with implementation of the Catch Sharing Plan in 2014. This replaces the GHL, which has governed charter halibut removals since the late 1990s. NMFS says the CSP will “provide more flexibility and stability in the charter harvest.” The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved the plan in 2012 and during the required comment period the agency received nearly 5,000 comments from the public and industry.

The basic principle is that the commercial longline and charter industries share a single allowable catch with sector allocations that fluctuate with stock abundance. For example, in 2C the charter allocation can range from 15.9 to 18.3% of the allowable catch, and in 3A from 14 to 19.9%. The higher percentage shares are applied during periods of lower halibut  abundance.

The CSP contains some controversial provisions, including the “guided angler fish” system for allowing charter operators to lease quota from longliners (but not the other way around). This is intended to provide a mechanism for charter operators to allow clients to take a second daily halibut of any size where charter catches are limited to one or by size.

Industry resistence comes in part because under the formula put forth in the CSP, charter catch limits in both 2C and 3A will be lower than in previous years (see story above). The CSP does not remove any of the increasingly onerous limitations that have been imposed on the charter fleet, especially in 2C, where one fish daily bag limit and reverse slot size limits have already been imposed. For a time some in the industry were floating a rumor that the CSP would bring an immediate shift to a one fish limit in 3A but the rumor does not appear to be true.

The Charter Halibut Management Implementation Committee has recommended options to the Council for keeping the respective charter catches within the new limits. These options could include a per-person annual limit, and in 2C a reverse slot limit of under 44 inches and over 76 inches, although the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization believes that a “status quo” reverse slot of U45/O68 is still viable. For 3C the committee is recommending one fish and size and a second fish less than or equal to 30 inches, plus a one trip per CHP permit per day.

Here is the Council’s final motion, provided by Andy Mezirow:

C-1 Charter Halibut Management Measures Council Motion 12/12/13

The Council recommends the following management measures for the 2014 charter halibut fishery in area 2C and area 3A, based on initial reference allocations of 1.78 million pounds in area 3A and 760,000 pounds in area 2C, resulting from the IPHC interim meeting.

Area 3A recommendations:

Two fish daily bag limit

Maximum size of the second fish is 29 inches

One trip per day (limit each vessel to one trip per calendar day)

If the final charter allocation is sufficiently higher than the “blue line” to remove the trip limit, the measures would be a two-fish daily bag limit, one of which is equal to or less than 29 inches. As needed, the size of the second fish may be adjusted up or down to meet the allocation.

Area 2C recommendations:

One fish daily bag limit

Reverse slot limit of U44/O76

If the final charter allocation is sufficiently higher than the “blue line” to accommodate a change in the reverse slot limit, adjust the size of the lower limit up one inch. The next adjustment would be to reduce the upper limit to meet the allocation.

Here is Andy’s narrative summary of the CSP:

As expected, the guided halibut charter fleet is now fishing under the Catch Share Plan. Here is the motion that will likely be approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council tomorrow:

Area 3A. Using the IPHC “blue line” of 1.78 million pounds as a reference point, 1 trip per boat per calendar day and a 2 fish per person bag limit, 1 of which is equal to and less than 29 inches.

If the charter allocation is sufficiently higher than the “blue line” to remove the trip limit: 2 fish, one of which is equal to or less than 29 inches (Only).

As needed, the size of the second fish may be adjusted up or down to meet policy goals.

What is the Catch Share Plan?

The Council developed the CSP in IPHC Regulatory Areas 2C and 3A to address the ongoing allocation conflict between the commercial and charter halibut fisheries. The commercial halibut fishery is subject to defined allocations of individual harvest shares that generally rise and fall with changes in halibut abundance, while the allocations to the charter halibut fishery, which experienced many years of sustained annual growth in areas 2C and 3A, were not increased or decreased in direct relationship with changes in fishery abundance. The commercial IFQ and charter halibut fishery are harvesting a fully utilized resource. The primary objectives of the CSP are to define an annual process for allocating halibut between the charter and commercial halibut fisheries in area 2C and area 3A, establish by regulation sector allocations that vary in proportion with changing levels of annual halibut abundance and that balance the differing needs of the charter and commercial halibut fisheries over a wide range of halibut abundance in each area, and describe a public process by which the Council may develop recommendations to the IPHC for charter angler harvest restrictions that are intended to limit harvest to the annual charter halibut fishery catch limit in each area.

Here is a link to the most recent version:

Here is what you need to know: Keep in mind that our sector’s final apportionment (allocation) is ultimately decided by the IPHC in January. So the final sentence of my motion gives IPHC the latitude to adjust the size of our second fish, probably up, to meet any increase in the base allocation rate. If they raise the catch rates enough, we will allow two trips per day again. This is not likely. I think we will end up with one fish any size and the second fish 30–32 inches (about the average size chicken we catch now). We are calling this the “Chicken Rule.”

Also we should be mindful of the fact that under the CSP there is no retention of halibut allowed by Captain and Crew and also that we are “charged” with a release mortality for every halibut that is released. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will use the “release” column in the log book to determine this number. Sitting in the chicken patch and sorting through hundreds of chickens is not going to be a great strategy, as one out of every ten halibut released is counted against our future allocation.

Expect further cuts in the next two years. The next likely effort reduction tool is going to be annual limits on halibut. You will see that next year. We are doing everything we can to keep a two fish bag limit and keeping regulations that will minimally discourage client participation.

We are now participating in a new management paradigm that will be around for a long time.  The CSP allocation is  35% less than our old allocation and we are linked directly to stock abundance. This is not good in a low and declining abundance. We had to find a way to cut 750,000 pounds and that was difficult.

We are now bearing our share of responsibility to the sustainability of the halibut resource. We will be sharing in the pain and the gain and there is simply no going back.

There are a number of things that we can do to make the CSP more acceptable and I am working on a number of discussion papers to get those changes moving as quickly as possible. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

Thanks for your support and the nice letters I got. I have tried to be fair and considerate of as many charter operators as possible. I don’t think these measures are going to hurt anyone much. Expect increased enforcement activity this summer to make sure your paperwork is in order. If anyone who owns a business wants to get involved in the management of halibut, let me know. I know just how you can play a role in the business of sharing fish!

Editor’s note: In an unrelated announcement the Council has named Heath Hilyard to a seat on the Council Advisory Panel.  He is executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, and replaced outgoine AP member Andy Mezirow, a charter operator from Seward. While the AP does not advise on many issues directly affecting the charter industry, the Council wanted to maintain charter presence on the AP.

Other News

New ACA Board

The Alaska Charter Association held an election of board members in December. Reelected were Gary Ault and David Bayes, both of Homer. Newly elected board members are Daniel Donich of Homer, Grantley Moore of Juneau, and Mike Flores of Ninilchik.

National Survey Gathers Anglers’ Opinions

NOAA has released results of its first-ever saltwater recreational angler survey. More than 9,000 anglers in 22 coastal states including Alaska participated. Results are aggregated and not separated out by individual state. Some data:

  • 81% of anglers plan to take the same number or more trips next year.
  • Of reasons they fish, most (87%) listed time with friends and family, followed by catching fish (83%), landing trophy-size fish (41%), and taking fish home to eat (41%).
  • Anglers want fishery managers to provide high quality fishing opportunities into the future and think goals should include recovering depeleted stocks, protecting threatened and endangered species, restoring habitat, and reducing release mortality, all at more than 80%.
  • Anglers want high quality areas, diversity of species, and abundant fish.
  • They prefer management measures that include minimum sizes, providing artificial habitats and bag limits.
  • Anglers want simplified and consistent federal and state regulations.

Happy Holidays to All


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