NOAA Extends Comment Period on Halibut Catch Share Plan to Sept. 21

By Margaret Bauman

Federal officials have extended through Sept. 21 the comment period on the proposed halibut catch sharing plan, which was to have ended Sept. 6, to assure that everyone has their say in the public process.

The extension was announced Sept. 1, in the wake of a visit to Alaska in August by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who spent time in Homer with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, listening to comments about the draft plan from both charter and setline halibut harvesters.

Lubchenco said she wanted to make sure that everyone has a chance to give their input in this public process of shaping the final halibut catch sharing plan.”

“While many fishermen have already submitted comments, this extension will allow additional time for fishermen still out on the water to make sure they are heard,” Begich said.

Halibut stocks in Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska have seen a steep decline in the past several years. NOAA officials said the proposed catch share plan is designed to foster a sustainable fishery by preventing overharvesting of halibut, and would introduce provisions that provide flexibility for charter and setline commercial fishermen. At present, both of these commercial fisheries are managed under different programs. The proposed catch-sharing plan was shaped through the public process at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which recommended the rule to establish a clear allocation between the setline and charter sectors that fish in Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska.

The announcement extending the comment period through Sept. 21 came on the same day as the Alaska House special Committee on Fisheries met for several hours in Anchorage, to hear from all sides on the halibut catch sharing plan.

Among the presenters were Glenn Merrill and Rachel Baker of the National Marine Fisheries Service and David Witherell of the NPFMC staff. Witherell told the legislators that the council had recommended the new catch sharing management approach for southeast Alaska and Southcentral Alaska for three reasons.

First, said Witherell, to establish allocations of halibut for the charter and setline fishing sectors. Second, to annually implement harvest restrictions for charter anglers that are intended to limit charter harvests to the annual charter catch limit, and third, to authorize annual transfers of commercial halibut individual fishing quota to charter halibut operators to provide charter anglers additional harvest opportunities.

The catch-sharing plan, they noted, was needed for several reasons.

For one, under present regulations there is no mechanism for transfer between sectors, causing continuing conflict. For another, the halibut charter guideline harvest level has been exceeded in Area 2C in Southeast Alaska every year despite restrictions.

While the charter industry has maintained that it is a sport fishery, the setline sector maintains that charter industry is in fact another form the of commercial fishing and that the burden of conservation should be shared by all who fish for halibut.

The Halibut Coalition represents a number of commercial fishing groups, from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and Cordova District fishermen to the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Sea Food Producers Cooperative and United Fishermen’s Marketing Association.

The Halibut Coalition maintains that the catch-sharing plan establishes clear percentage-based sector allocations that allow harvests to rise and fall with resource abundance. “The catch sharing plan is an approved and agreed upon solution to the halibut conservation and allocation issues,” the coalition states in documents presented to the legislators in Anchorage. “The catch sharing plan must be implemented as soon as possible, the coalition said in its documents. “In the interim, NMFS must effectively enforce the guideline harvest level to keep the charter industry within its GHL quota,” the coalition said in written testimony.

“To me the allocation was fair and equitable,” said Kathy Hansen, speaking for the Halibut Coalition. “The council wanted everyone to share the burden of the resource. The catch sharing plan requires both sectors to share that burden.”

The coalition’s testimony notes that more than 95 percent of all Area 2C commercial halibut fishermen operate family businesses working from vessels less than 60 feet. In 2010, about 60 percent of them were permitted to harvest 3,300 pounds or less of halibut and 90 percent less than 9,000 pounds. The average 2C commercial halibut fisherman grosses about $9,000 from halibut fishing in this area, the coalition said.

In 2009, the charter fleet sued to prevent NMFS from enforcing the GHL in a way that would limit their harvest.

“Annual revenue from the smallest of the plaintiffs was $100,000, they said. Two plaintiffs reported annual revenues of $1.6 million and $1.89 million, according to the coalition’ testimony. One charter plaintiff operated a corporate fleet of 27 vessels catching between 460,000 pounds and 763,000 pounds of halibut. Another charter plaintiff was catching between 93,000 pounds and 148,000 pounds annually. By contrast in 2010, less than 1 percent of the 2C commercial fishermen harvested 20,000 or more pounds of halibut in this area.

Over the past six years, reductions in the allowable catch for the setline fleet have totaled 78 percent, the coalition said.

Presenters for the Southeast Alaska Guides association testified that due to a lack of current economic analysis that ”the devastating impact of the catch sharing plan to the sectors or coastal communities has not been properly understood. “The loss of jobs and charter fishing related revenue should be projected prior to the implementation of this rule, SEAGO maintained.

SEAGO also said the catch sharing plan circumvents the public process by placing the authority of settlement annual management measures with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, rather than with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“The IPHC is not subject to the Administrative Procedures Act, which mandates public involvement in the rule-making process, SEAGO said. “In essence, this change removes United States citizens from management decisions over domestic allocation. Convenience and expediency should never justify preventing public involvement in significant policy decisions.”

“Somebody has to make a decision,” said Richard Yamada of the Alaska Charter Association, in his presentation to legislators, “how does the fish generate the most revenue for the state. The IFQ fishery has declining participants. In the charter industry there is all kinds of room for growth,” he said.

While the House Special Committee on Fisheries is unlikely to take much, if any action on this matter, that didn’t stop legislators from asking a lot of questions and voicing opinions on the setline and charter sectors.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, a commercial fisherman, noted that he has seen his individual allocation of halibut fall without a compensating rise in price. Thomas said he has constituents who can’t afford to go fishing anymore. While the commercial fishermen have been willing to stand down from fishing to protect the resource, “I’m not hearing that from the other side,” he said.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, another member of the fisheries committee, said he felt allocation of the halibut resource had to be based on good information, both economic and biological. “I don’t think we have either to make the kind of decisions that this group is planning on making, that’s going to affect the lives of Alaskans, and possibly the fish,” he said.

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Margaret Bauman can be reached at