Fish cutters at Coal Point Seafoods notice there’s less halibut coming into the 23-year-old fish processing business on Thursdays. Clad in head nets, aprons and rubber boots, they might grumble about filleting boney pollock instead.
On Thursdays, they see more pollock, as well as salmon, lingcod, and rockfish instead of halibut, which streams into the building as soon as charter boats return to the harbor every other day of the week. Owner Nancy Hillstrand confirms that Thursdays are slow.
“We play catch up on that day. It’s an early night,” she says.
In January, the International Pacific Halibut Commission announced that the charter fishing fleet in Area 3A, which encompasses Southcentral Alaska and includes Homer, Ninilchik, Seward and Valdez, would be prohibited from fishing for halibut on Thursdays, June 15 – Aug. 31.
The Spit’s charter fleet—always focused on halibut—has had to reinvent itself one day a week. Inlet Charters Across Alaska Adventures offers a four to six-hour whale watching trip on Thursdays.
“Gary wanted to do this years and years ago,” owner Barb Buzzelli said of her husband and co-owner Gary Ault,
who has been in the charter industry in Homer since 1980. “But there was more money in halibut.”
Rainbow Tours offers a Thursday “whitefish” charter, which focuses on cod, pollock and rockfish. But most of the six passenger boats, the majority of which were already rigged for trolling salmon, are running salmon-only or salmon combination trips on Thursdays.
The bigger boats have had a harder time with the new rule. According to Gerry Martin, who owns North Country Charters with husband Sean, you can only fit four to six downriggers — gear used for trolling for salmon — on the stern of a charter boat. Regardless, “we figured we’d give it a go,” she said, taking out groups of about six to eight people — and one deckhand instead of two — on a boat that normally carries 16 for halibut fishing. “It’s better than sitting at home.”
So far, the boat has only stayed in the harbor once this summer.
Some captains just take the day off.
“People come to Homer to halibut fish,” said Drew White, who runs the 16-passenger Born Free for Alaska Coastal Marine. “It’s harder to sell those salmon trips.” White uses Thursdays for boat work, if necessary, otherwise he enjoys this warm, sunny summer. This season’s weather has cooperated: no blow-out days has meant that boats, captains and deckhands are busy everyday.
Still there is a lot of frustration about the rule among Spit charter businesses.
“It’s taken one-seventh of the business,” Kathy Rider, manager of Central Charters, said. “We’ve been successful booking salmon trips on Thursdays,” she adds. “Tourism is up and business is up, so overall we’re not hurt.”
By the time the rule was announced in January, David Bayes, was at least 30-40 percent booked for the summer. Bayes, who owns and captains the six-passenger Grand Aleutian and sits on the Board of the Alaska Charter Association, had to reschedule some of his clients. A few were not happy.
Homer Ocean Charters reports a decline in charter income of 17 percent since the rule took effect in mid-June. The Thursday rule, along with regulations that limit charter boats to one trip per day, set the size of the second charter-caught halibut at 29 inches or less, and establish an annual bag limit of five fish, chomps into the profit margin. Since charter clients usually catch their daily limit of two halibut, there’s much less incentive to charter fish for more than two or three days.
“We have people who have been fishing with us for 15 years who would fish three or four days with us,” owner Diane Borgman said. “They can’t do that.”
Although the number of pounds allotted to the charter fleet in Area 3A is up by 6 percent from last year, the commercial industry still gets the lion’s share — 81 percent — of the halibut. Halibut taken as bycatch in the trawl industry in this region have nearly matched the pounds allotted to the charter fleet.
In the early days of the Spit’s charter industry, there were no rules. Former state legislator and commercial fisherman and 68-year Halibut Cove resident Clem Tillion would row a 32-foot wooden Bristol Bay gillnetter ashore to pick up Land’s End hotel guests and bring them to a few fishing holes he knew. In the late 1950s, the guests were mostly hotel owner Earl Hillstrand’s friends from Anchorage and would bring their own gear. Tillion often set a commercial longline as backup in case the hooks came up empty.
Between those years — before the harbor, when Beluga Slough was deep enough for whales and anchored boats — and the late 1970s, about half a dozen charter fishing businesses formed. Mike Swan, who got into the business in 1979 and officially retired this week, remembers using range lines to return to good fishing spots. After leaving the mouth of the bay and heading north, he would line up a hay field on Ohlson Mountain on the north side of Kachemak Bay with Grewingk Glacier on the south side and use his depth finder to locate the hole.
Range lines gave way to LORAN, which became obsolete once charter captains started using GPS. The gear has changed too. Soon after the commercial halibut fleet swiftly adopted the circle hook in the early 1980s, the charter captains switched too.
Circle hooks, which have been used by Native peoples for thousands of years, proved much better at hanging onto fish and, because they’re designed to hook fish in the mouth and not in the gut, killed fewer of the fish that were released.
And the lines have gotten finer, the weights heavier, and the engines more powerful as charter captains venture deeper and farther for fish.
There have been trickle down impacts from the Thursday rule, although reports from Spit businesses are mixed. According to CEO Mike Dye, Land’s End Resort experienced a slight dip in reservations on Wednesday and Thursday nights in June from last year and has fielded a fair amount of requests from guests wanting to change their reservations to accommodate the rule.
“There hasn’t been too much negativity about it,” said Alaska Heritage RV Park manager Sherry Mitchell. She said tthe RV park has seen no impact to the business, and adds that RV travelers are generally flexible and don’t mind re-arranging their schedules.
But Daniel Gardner, barista at Coal Town Coffee and Tea, which caffeinates scores of charter captains, deckhands and clients starting at 5 a.m., says that Thursdays are “definitely slower.”
Still, the questions dangle: by the end of the summer, what will be the impact of the Thursday rule on the bottom line? And what will it be on the fish?
“My concern is the trawling,” Coal Point Seafood’s Nancy Hillstrand said. “Until [the regulators] get the bycatch taken care of, it leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.”