NPFMC Moves Forward on Changes in Halibut Catch Sharing

North Pacific Fishery Management Council
Image via North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

An initial review is expected in December on the contentious halibut Catch Share Plan before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, in the wake of a decision at its virtual meeting in February to direct staff to produce a detailed analysis of alternative options.

The council said the analysis of both options to one alternative should maintain the current approach for transition between tiers within the charter fleet to ensure stable allocations for the charter sector and to explore methods of implementing charter measures for more than one year through the council process or domestic regulations. The other alternative calls for status quo.

The National Marine Fisheries Service develops and enforces fishing regulations in U.S. waters. It is the federal fisheries council’s responsibility to allocate halibut between Alaska user groups and also manage the trawl fisheries that take halibut incidentally, while targeting other fish.

The decision came extensive public and written testimony, the bulk of which supported keeping the charter/commercial catch share allocation as it was adopted in 2012 and implemented in 2014, with passage of the 2C/3A Halibut Catch Share Plan. 

2C is the Southeast Alaska regulatory area under the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), and 3A is the Southcentral regulatory area. Both are popular areas with charter fishing industry clients.

The Halibut Coalition, whose mission is to protect the sustainability of the halibut resource and ensure equitable allocation of that resource, spoke of its disappointment with the council’s February decision, saying the motion keeps open the possibility of another uncompensated reallocation of commercial quota, or individual fishing quotas, to charter operators.

The commercial fleet, many members of which are already saddled with significant debt for their purchased quota shares, would face new uncertainties if more of these quota shares are be taken away with no compensation, the coalition said.

The coalition also noted that when the catch share plan was adopted in 2014, charter operators received 125% of their historic catch at low levels of abundance. The additional 25% came from the commercial longline sector, and at that time the commercial longline sector was assured that no further uncompensated reallocations would be considered.

Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, and a U.S. member of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, noted that the NPFMC has struggled with halibut allocation issues between commercial and charter interests for 25 years.

The matter seemed to have been resolved when the council supported the idea that charter interests could purchase commercial quota to augment charter seasons and catch, he said.

“The NPFMC chose to allow the marketplace to be the arbiter of future allocations,” Alverson commented. “This reconsideration of allocation puts Alaska, Washington and Oregon commercial and charter interests in unnecessarily adversarial positions which is something previous council members intended to avoid.”

Richard Yamada, a fishing lodge owner in Southeast Alaska who is also president of the Alaska Charter Association and also a U.S. member of the IPHC, supported the review of the Catch Sharing Plan program and the allocation review. Yamada told the council in written testimony that the continued decline in halibut abundance and provisions provided by the program to protect the viability of the charter fleet in times of low abundance were severely inadequate.

Yamada urged the council to consider a temporary means to shift allocation to the guided sector until the Recreational Quota Entity is completely functional and can buy quota, including a temporary shift of between 5% and 10% for Area 2C and 3% to 5% for area 3A.

Jim Martin, executive director of the Alaska Charter Association, also urged the council in written testimony to initiate a full review of the CSP allocations. Martin said that the CSP had failed to meet its objectives despite the charter industry’s efforts to craft workable regulations to meet existing allocations.

“The council’s allocation of halibut to the guided sector may no longer be fair nor equitable under low abundances in the stock status,” he said.

Legislation still pending in Congress would allow the NPFMC to recommend and the Secretary of Commerce to approve regulations necessary for the collection of fees from charter vessel operators who guide recreational anglers who harvest pacific halibut in IPHC regulatory areas 2C and 3A.

Linda Behnken, who serves as executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka and the Halibut Coalition, noted that in 2012 the council committed that the CSP ended 20 years of uncompensated reallocation of commercial quota to the charter sector and included a one-way market-based mechanism to allow charter operators to increase harvesting opportunities for the clients by leaving quota.

“Evidently paying for quota is an obstacle for charter operations; they prefer to take it and the council just legitimized that approach by scheduling this analysis,” Behnken said.

The Halibut Coalition is disappointed in the focus of the council’s motion on relieving stress in the charter sector while remaining virtually silent on existing impacts to the commercial sector, she added.

Behnken urged commercial halibut harvesters to voice their concern in letters to the governors of Alaska, Washington and Oregon, since their council representatives voted for the reallocation alternatives, and to be prepared to testify when the issue comes back before the council.

“Halibut is exclusively a domestic market enjoyed nationally,” she said. “It is not good for our fishermen or markets to take more fish away from the commercial sector, compensated or uncompensated. It is valued by Americans and American markets.”

Megan O’Neil, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owner’s Association, in Petersburg, Alaska, said that the CSP is meeting its objectives. The charter sector has two mechanisms to transfer quota. They are leasing quota through Guided Angler Fish and purchase of quota through the Recreational Quota Entity once a funding mechanism is approved allowing the charter sector to use 10% of Area 2C quota and 12% of Area 3A quota.

The GAF plan authorizes transfers of commercial halibut individual fishing quota as guided angler fish to qualified charter halibut permit holders for harvest by charter vessel anglers in Areas 2C and 3A. Using GAF, qualified charter halibut permit holders may offer their clients the opportunity to retain halibut up to the limit for unguided anglers when the charter management measure in place limits charter vessel anglers to a more restrictive harvest limit.

Marc Carrel, a spokesperson for Cordova District Fishermen United, also spoke in opposition to modifying the CSP.

“The CSP has had the effect of bringing together the commercial and charter fishing fleets as partners in the conservation and management of Pacific halibut,” Carrel said. “We have enjoyed working together with charter fishing groups at the IPHC and NPFMC and would like this alliance to continue to remain strong.”

“Attempting to modify the allocation plan,” he told the council, “will create a battle that benefits no one.”