Charter captains question halibut proposal

With no budget for travel to hold an information workshop or take public comments at a hearing, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries officials held an informal audioconference presentation on Tuesday night on the proposed halibut Catch Sharing Plan. Participants had the chance to call in and ask questions. Most listened in and asked questions at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center with a group of about 15, mostly charter captains.

The format didn’t allow for the face-to-face conversation of 2011 when NOAA-National Marine Fisheries officials came to Homer and a group of about 150 fishermen made their views heard. Tuesday night wasn’t a formal comment hearing, as NOAA officials kept reminding people when questions sometimes became statements.

NOAA extended the comment period for the rule to Aug. 26.

The proposed regulations would replace the current charter guideline harvest level with a percentage allocation of the commercial and charter combined catch limit for each area. The catch sharing plan would not affect unguided sport fishermen fishing from private boats. The catch sharing plan would allow commercial fishing boats to be run as charter vessels, but not on the same day.

As it does now, the overall catch limit for halibut fisheries is determined

 by the International Pacific Halibut Commission each. Allocations would vary based on changes in halibut abundance. 

Rachel Baker with NMFS Sustainable Fisheries spoke to that point when Jim Martin of the Alaska Charter Association asked why the current guideline harvest level isn’t considered a “hard” allocation. In proposing the rule NOAA Fisheries said the lack of a hard allocation had created conflicts between the commercial fishing and guided angler sectors.

“It really gets to the heart of why the (North Pacific Fishery Management) Council proposed the Catch Sharing Plan and why we’re here today,” Baker said.

The guideline harvest level doesn’t respond to increases or deceases with halibut abundance, she said. 

For example, in area 3A that includes the Gulf of Alaska and Cook Inlet, the 2013 guideline harvest level for guided charter fishermen is 2.73 million pounds out of a 13 million pound catch limit set by the IPHC. Under the catch sharing plan, for a catch limit of 10.8 million to 20 million pounds, guided charter fishermen would get 17.5 percent. If the catch sharing plan had been in place this year, guided charter fishermen would have gotten an allocation of 2.27 million pounds.

Julie Scheurer, also with NMFS Sustainable Fisheries, noted that the Catch Sharing Plan does not implement management measures or propose a one-fish daily bag limit. The 2011 plan had set up a matrix that might have resulted in one-fish limits under certain abundance scenarios, but the new rule eliminates that matrix. The IPHC would establish management measures based on recommendations from the North Council and stakeholder groups.

Martin had sent a list of questions to NOAA before Tuesday’s meeting. Here are some of his questions as well as those from others:

Question: Will the allocation to guided anglers go up or down under the Catch Sharing Plan?

Answer: It depends, Baker said. Moderate-to-low levels of abundance would give the charter fleet smaller amounts than the guideline harvest level. Higher levels of abundance would give guided anglers more.

Q: About the Guided Angler Fish. When does a commercial fish become a sport fish? Isn’t selling sport fish illegal?

A: The Guided Angler Fish program is a carryover from the 2011 catch sharing plan. If times of low abundance led to lower fishing limits, guided halibut operators can purchase individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, from commercial fishermen, to give clients a chance to get a second or bigger fish. 

Baker said there are a lot of questions and uncertainties about the GAF program.

“We really don’t know how many people will use GAF,” she said.

IFQ holders can transfer up to 10 percent of their quota to charter captains. Once transferred, the IFQ, converted from pounds to fish, becomes a sport caught fish. A sport-caught fish couldn’t be sold. Baker noted a fisherman who owned both IFQs and a guided-angler permit could transfer IFQs as GAFs from the commercial side to the sport side. NOAA Fisheries would record transfers, but the free market would determine how IFQs get sold as GAFs.

Q: Charter captain Sean Martin asked about an unfairness regarding GAF transfers. Six-pack licenses could purchase more per-fisherman than larger licenses.

“All of a sudden this is not a free market. How were these figures arrived at being as they are not equitable?” he asked.

A: Jane DiCosimo of the North Council said the intent of the GAF wasn’t to bring each charter captain up to capacity, but as a voluntary mechanism captains could use. 

Q: “What’s to prevent these large boat owners from buying four charter permits and stacking them, and how is that equitable?” Holly Van Pelt asked.

A: The limited access guided charter rules allow stacking, Baker said. NOAA Fisheries would consider comments on if that’s equitable.

Q: What happens if the guided harvest exceeds the Catch Sharing Plan Allocation?

A: That’s possible, Baker said. The harvest also could be less. The IPHC would consider an overage in the following year.

Q: The Catch Sharing Plan deducts wastage from each fishery’s allocation and not, as is done now, from the overall catch limit. How is wastage calculated?

A: “I am not aware of any existing wastage surveys to measure expected decreases in sector wastage,” Baker said.

Q: “Why isn’t bycatch accounted for from the full commercial side?” asked charter captain Greg Suter.

A: The Catch Sharing Plan applies to directed halibut fisheries, not the trawling fleet or other fisheries that catch halibut as bycatch.

Q: Incoming chamber executive director Jim Lavrakas asked why the Catch Sharing Plan didn’t include an economic impact assessment statement even though rules requires it.

A: The rules are required to use the best information that’s available and not to do new studies.

“With that said, there are a lot of examples in the analysis where the council analyists have tried to take the information available,” Baker said. “The guided angler fish is a good example.”

Q: In Washington and Oregon, all sport fishermen can catch two fish, with no distinction between guided and unguided anglers. Why is that? asked Daniel Donich, a charter captain. 

A: “I get that question a lot as well,” Baker said. 

The IPHC sets up regional fishery management councils.

“The North Council has determined to have different management programs for guided and unguided anglers.”

“It’s a policy determination to manage sport sectors different,” DiCosimo added.

The public comment period ends Aug. 26. Comments can be sent to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian, and identified by FDMS Docket Number NOAA-NMFS-2011-0180. Comments may be submitted by any of the following methods:

Electronic Submission:  via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at

Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668

Fax: (907)-586-7557

A copy of the proposed halibut catch sharing plan is available online at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region website at


Michael Armstrong can be reached at


Halibut Catch Sharing Plan

How to Comment

The public comment period ends Aug. 26. Comments can be sent to: 

Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator,
Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, 

Attn: Ellen Sebastian, and identified by FDMS Docket Number

Comments may be submitted by any of the following methods:

Electronic Submission:
via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at

P.O. Box 21668,
Juneau, AK 99802-1668

Fax:   907-586-7557

A copy of the proposed halibut catch sharing plan is available online at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region website at