Council allows sport guides to buy halibut quota

Culture shifts, as does policy.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, master of the nation’s most valuable fishing region, decided on Dec. 10 to implement a new plan that in some ways reflects changing attitudes and economies in the North Pacific and in Alaska.

The plan involves allowing guided recreational halibut fishermen to buy up commercial quota through a system called an RQE — a recreational quota entity. This differs from an existing program that allows sport guides to lease, but not buy, commercial quota.

Commercial fishermen don’t welcome the change, and in fact see it as one more nail in the coffin of a historical Alaskan enterprise that is more expensive and more difficult to enter that it ever has been.

Commercial fishermen think the RQE will usher in the absolute death of Southeast Alaska coastal village fleets in a matter of five years, all at the hands of the tourism behemoths that control more and more of the island economies.

“This is the death of a small boat, owner-operator fishery. It’s over,” said Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove, a North Pacific fisheries fixture and longtime advocate for coastal quota ownership. “Holland America and Carnival (Cruise Line) will buy the quota and hired hands will fish it, and the small boat fleet out of villages is gone.”

Tillion has a dim view of human nature. Though nobody is forcing commercial fishermen to sell their quota in this new program, or forcibly giving to another group of users, he says the temptation of money might as well be force.

“I watched the Natives who had all that salmon quota, and they sold to the highest bidder without giving it to their kids,” said Tillion. “The temptation of selling to Carnival will be too high. Mankind is a weak animal.”

Guides, meanwhile, said the RQE is an innovative economic means to loosen up quota — one the rest of the country and the North Pacific might use more often as recreational fisheries grow.

“The North Pacific council provides guidance to the rest of the country about how to provide allocations between different sectors,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “The complaint at many councils is that many allocations have been frozen shut. This provides a market-based approach for willing sellers, willing buyers, to bypass the deadlocks that are common in allocation issues across the country.”

Andy Mezirow, a council member and charter captain in Seward, agreed.

“It’s a sign that our sector is growing up,” he said.

Shrinking availability

Halibut was at the center of nearly every touchy issue the North Pacific council dealt with over the last two years.

The never-ending stew of halibut-born conflict is understandable. Halibut is one of the most valuable fish in the sea — even though only 2 percent of fisheries landings are halibut, 18 percent of the total value of North Pacific’s fish value comes from the fish.

Scarcity has added to the value. Due to either natural fluctuation or environmental issues, halibut catch limits took a nosedive between 2004 and 2014, from 76.5 million pounds to 27.5 million pounds.

Sharing is hard. Along with holding the most value per pound, halibut, alongside salmon, has one of the most diverse groups of fishermen looking to catch it.

The commercial halibut fishermen who put the fish onto menus and high-end stores share the harvest with guided charter vessels, non-guided recreational fishermen, subsistence users and non-halibut fishermen, mainly trawlers, who incidentally catch halibut in the process of fishing their own quota, known as bycatch.

Recreational quota entity

The council’s 11 voting members approved the RQE plan 8-3, with only Roy Hyder of Oregon, Kenny Downs of Washington, and Buck Laukitis of Alaska opposing.

Southeast charter lodge owner Richard Yamada planned RQEs to keep the charter fleet within its yearly allocations, as a “market based solution” that matches up willing buyer with willing sellers.

Under the plan, a recreational quota entity, or RQE, can buy commercial quota to be held in a common pool for charter operators to draw from as needed if they’re in danger of fishing over their harvest limit.

Prices for quota typically run about five times or more the current ex-vessel value per pound, making purchases particularly expensive — a fact not lost on the commercial fleet.

This would differ from the current Guided Angler Fish, or GAF, program, which only allows charter permit holders to lease commercial quota rather than buy it.

Under the plan passed by the council, the RQE can hold 10 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, and 12 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Area 3A, or Southcentral Alaska. The latter was bumped down from 15 percent.

This would take 10 years to happen — Southeast Alaska can only transfer 1 percent per year, and Southcentral 1.2 percent.

If the RQE can find commercial quota holders willing to sell, these quota pound transfers will eventually allow the charter fleet to regain some of the size restrictions they’ve lost, potentially going back to one fish of any size in Southeast Alaska.

It will also make the RQE the single largest halibut-holding entity in the North Pacific.

Stakeholders still don’t know where the RQE will get the money to make purchases in the first place. Estimates place the cost of the necessary quota up to $25 million. Several self-funding options like a halibut stamp from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game exist alongside publicly funded options like a voluntary tax.

Opportunity lost, opportunity gained

Well-worn arguments ping-ponged back and forth throughout the council’s Advisory Panel hearing and the council’s own public testimony. Like all halibut fishermen, both charter operators and commercial operators have felt the sting of increased restrictions.

In Southeast Alaska, available commercial halibut quota dropped 78 percent over an eight-year period — too big a decline for the fleet to handle even if prices had risen another 38 percent in the same time.

The commercial fleet’s profile shows the impact. Between the start of the IFQ program and 2014, the number of commercial vessels and crew dropped by half.

For commercial operators, the entire concept of an RQE smells like a week-old slime line, a fancy acronym to disguise a hostile reallocation of valuable halibut quota. If we suffer, they said, charter fishermen should suffer too.

“Who in the industry at low levels of abundance doesn’t experience additional restrictions?” asked Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association. “Does making the charter sector whole again, making the charter sector great again…justify the impact this would have on other sectors of the industry?”

The so-called graying of the fleet looms large in halibut fishermen’s minds as well.

The term refers to the climbing average age of Alaska’s quota holders. Young fishermen looking to follow in the family footsteps incur greater and greater expenses purchasing quota and boats, leaving fisheries managers looking for ways to encourage new participation.

The RQE could worsen the situation if it drives up quota prices even further.

“RQE would be a new entry to an industry that’s already competitive,” said Carina Nichols, a 28-year-old fisherman from Sitka. “I find the idea of individuals such as myself competing with a publicly funded entity concerning.”

Guides are in a similar boat, and say they have every bit as much at stake as the commercial fishermen and contribute every bit as much to the economy.

Functionally, charter captains in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska are trying to maneuver to get back to normal days. Southcentral guides have every Wednesday closed to fishing now, which they say is a mathematically simple cut in their business — one-seventh of their days are no longer viable.

They also have size restrictions, which they say can make or break a client’s decision to book a charter trip in the first place, or end a trip when they have to call a booked client with the regulatory news.

Ben Martin, a second-generation Homer-based charter captain of an age with Nichols, said he’s sunk upward of $65,000 into his operation in the last few years.

Mel Grove, a Valdez guide, spoke of several suicides in his social circle due to a worsening economic outlook in the small Alaska town.

“We’ve gone from 9,000 anglers days to barely over 3,000,” he said. “When times are tough, people take drastic measures. It’s those folks in town that are really seeing the greatest impact.”

Everybody vs. everybody

Fishing conflicts in the North Pacific reflect Alaska’s economic and cultural development in some ways.

Tourism has always been a part of Alaska’s economy, but it continues to grow. In 2015, Alaska had a record 2 million visitors come to the Last Frontier.

Meanwhile, recreational fishing grows. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce that control the North Pacific council along with seven others, has begun detailing the billions in economic impacts of recreational fisheries in its annual reports. In 2014, 301,000 marine recreational anglers took more than 583,000 trips and caught a total of nearly 2.3 million fish.

Samantha Weinstein, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, told the North Pacific council the battle is really about staying on top of the halibut heap. Times change, and the fish is good for more than just eating, she said.

“Much of the opposition to the RQE Program is based on the primacy of the commercial sector in Alaska history,” she said. “Essentially, we’re seeking to buy something another group feels a historical right to hold.”

Halibut’s current regulatory system, the Individual Fishing Quota or IFQ program, started in 1992, though commercial halibut fishing in Alaska dates back to the 19th century. Like most North Pacific fish, halibut used to be a derby fishery, where whoever wanted to try his luck could catch as much as possible in the season window.

Also like most North Pacific fish, halibut management had to switch to a so-called “catch share” system, where fisheries managers gave blocks of quota to historically dependent halibut fishermen.

By comparison, guided anglers are relative newcomers of the last 30 or so years.

Guides have their own arguments for Alaska’s coastal health. Halibut is worth $7 per pound to a commercial fishermen, but guide businesses multiply that, they say. Outsiders looking for a trophy stay in town and spread money around, feeding a bustling tourism industry in Southeast Alaska towns like Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau.

“Buying halibut off the shelf is not the only way people want to get it now – they want to visit Alaska for the halibut fishing experience of a lifetime,” said Weinstein. “Fisheries management needs to take actions that recognize this.”

DJ Summers can be reached at