Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:05 PM on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Halibut plan won't take effect in 2012


After receiving more than 4,000 comments on the proposed halibut Catch Sharing Plan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Fisheries last week asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its Dutch Harbor meetings to take another look at the proposed rule at its December meetings.

Most parties in the debate agree that the Catch Sharing Plan won't be approved in time for the 2012 fishing season. If the rule-making process had stayed on track, NOAA Fisheries would have evaluated and responded to comments in time for the Secretary of Commerce to approve the rule and have it published by the December interim meetings of the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Seattle. That is when the IPHC releases its preliminary catch limits for 2012. If published in December, the Catch Sharing Plan would have been in effect by the January 2012 IPHC meetings in Anchorage when it sets its final catch limits.

With Catch Sharing Plan back to the North Council, that won't happen.

"I don't believe there's any way in the world they can get it implemented for next year," said Rex Murphy, a Homer charter captain who has advised the Alaska Charter Association on the issue.

Charter and sportfishing groups praised the re-examination of the Catch Sharing Plan.

"We are happy to see that NOAA and the National Fisheries Service have realized that we need to have a full understanding of the economic impacts of these decisions," said Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease.

Murphy said charter and sportfishing groups in their comments had brought a lot of attention to issues in the Catch Sharing Plan.

"They're going to need to stop and go through these issues one by one, prioritize them and decide what they need to do," he said of NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries published the draft federal rule for the Catch Sharing Plan in July. If approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, it would give the guided sport halibut charter fleet a set percentage of the overall allowable catch determined by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Depending on how many millions of pounds of halibut the fleet receives, charter fishermen in various regulatory areas would be allowed one fish a day, two fish with one fish less than 32-inches long or two fish. The rule does not affect halibut caught by unguided sport fishermen or subsistence fishermen.

Under the new rule, charter fishermen could lease for the season IFQs from commercial fishermen — called a guided angler fish — that would allow them to fish for a second fish if a one-fish limit or a smaller-fish limit was imposed.

Methods for calculating the average weight of a guided angler fish was one of the concerns NOAA Fisheries cited as why it felt it needed to send the Catch Sharing Plan back to the North Council. Both the IPHC and the Alaska Charter Association had pointed out that the rule estimating the per-fish weight by calculating the mean weight of all guided-angler caught fish was flawed. Most likely, charter guides leasing guided-angler fish would be for halibut of a size greater than the mean.

"The sole reason for buying a GAF is to increase the bag limit to something over 37 inches, and preferably something BIG," the Alaska Charter Association wrote in its comments.

Other concerns raised by NOAA Fisheries and needing North Council input include management implications when halibut are at lower levels of abundance ad the economic impacts of the plan. Many charter captains had questioned the proposed rules economic analysis, saying it was incomplete and needed more study.

The North Council meets again Dec. 5-13. NOAA Fisheries will make a presentation on the Catch Sharing Plan and its concerns, giving details on what needs further input, said Julie Speegle, NOAA Fisheries public affairs officer. The North Council might recommend some parts of the Catch Sharing Plan to the IPHC, she said.

Still to come are two sets of numbers that will determine the 2012 catch limits: the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's projected 2011 halibut harvest by all sectors and the IPHC's stock assessment and suggested catch limits. That could lead to a change in the guideline harvest limit — the current method of limiting the allowable catch by guided sport fishermen. In Area 3A for southcentral Alaska, the GHL is now 3.65 million pounds compared to a catch limit this year of 14.36 million pounds for Area 3A commercial halibut fishermen. ADF&G looks at logbooks for charter captains while IPHC uses landings reports for commercial fishermen. As of Wednesday, NOAA estimated Area 3A commercial fishermen had landed 13.2 million pounds.

ADF&G will release its numbers within the month while the IPHC releases its preliminary stock assessment and catch limits in December.

What NOAA Fisheries will ask the North Council to do and how it will change the proposed Catch Sharing Plan remains to be seen.

"In one way this creates more uncertainty," Speegle said "It's a mixed bag for the charter operators."

Murphy agreed — at least about the uncertainty.

"We're sort of in wait-and-see mode right now," he said.

Charter interests had been criticizing the catch sharing plan since the North Council passed it in 2008. Murphy said he was glad to see that NOAA Fisheries finally saw flaws in the plan.

"I'm disappointed it took them this long to push back," he said. "It shouldn't have taken them this long to see there's something the matter."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.