Halibut changes on table

A revised version of the controversial halibut catch sharing plan is once again back up for federal review. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service on June 28 published the proposed plan in the Federal Register and seeks public comment. Comments are due by Aug. 12.

In letters sent this week to NOAA Acting Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, both Alaska’s U.S. Senators urged NOAA to extend the comment period another 45 days. 

“Limiting the review period to July and early August, the peak fishing season for charter and commercial fishermen alike, is insufficient to meet the obligation to gather meaningful public comment,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in a press release.

“The 45-day comment period on the CSP (catch sharing plan) in effect winds up when the halibut fishing season is still in gear, undercutting the decision-making process by leaving out a core group,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a press release. “I believe it is important to allow affected parties sufficient time to review this 134-page document and prepare their comments.”

At a luncheon talk on Wednesday with the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, Murkowski elaborated on that request.

“We’re all working. This is the busy time of the year,” she said. “I don’t know about you, I don’t sleep this time of year, and it’s not because we’re all out sunbathing. We’re all working. I hope they take my request seriously.”

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, NOAA said in a press release. 

As it is now, the catch limit would be determined by the International Pacific Halibut Commission each year. Allocations would vary based on changes in halibut abundance.

The catch sharing plan would not affect unguided sport fishermen fishing from private boats.

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 received an allocation of 2.27 million pounds. In area 3A, since 2008, guided charter fishermen have consistently caught an estimated harvest under the guideline harvest level.

As with the previous catch sharing plan, guided halibut operators could purchase individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, from commercial fishermen under the guided angler fish program. If guided fishermen had a limit of one halibut of a specific size per day, a charter captain could purchase a guided angler fish that would allow a client to harvest up to two fish of any size per day. The catch sharing plan would allow commercial fishing boats to be run as charter vessels, but not on the same day.

Another change would use charter guidebooks to determine annual harvests rather than the current method of surveys. 

The catch sharing plan was first proposed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2008 and then by NOAA/NMFS in the summer of 2011. After an outcry from guided sport charter operators, the plan was tabled and sent back to the North Council. In October 2012 it approved a revised version, the rules now under review.

“The North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended the catch sharing plan to establish a clear allocation between the commercial and charter sectors in Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska, provide stability in charter harvest, and provide halibut fishery managers with greater precision in setting halibut catch limits and management measures that are responsive to changes in halibut exploitable biomass and fishing effort,” NOAA said in its press release.

The Alaska Charter Association is reviewing the proposed rules, said Rex Murphy for the association. One immediate concern: The comment period falls right in the middle of the busy summer charter halibut season.

“Once again, NMFS has set a 45-day comment period, which to no surprise happens to fall entirely within the four-month charter season,” Murphy said.

The Alaska Charter Association is asking NMFS to extend the comment period to a full 90 days, he said.

Under Murphy’s analysis, he said that when logbook harvest accounting is taken into account, the allocations under the revised catch sharing plan aren’t better and for area 3A, at higher abundance levels, are much worse than the original 2008 plan.

“Depending on abundance levels, CSP allocations for guided recreational anglers in Areas 2C and 3A are up to 40 percent less than the status quo GHL (guideline harvest level), previously found by the courts to be fair and equitable,” he said.

The Homer Charter Association this week sent out an alert titled “Save Your ’But” urging its member to oppose the catch sharing plan.

“A Catch ‘sharing’ plan will take your second halibut and ‘gift’ it to a commercial fisherman,” the brochure said.

The reduced allocation would result in a one-halibut bag limit for southcentral guided fishermen, the Homer Charter Association said.

Under the 2011 version of the catch sharing plan, a matrix established daily bag and size limits under various allocation scenarios. That matrix was criticized for being inflexible. The proposed revision would set bag and size limits through a public process involving the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“From our perspective, it sets up a process whereby the charter allocation will be established by the catch sharing plan, but then there will be a public process, including an analysis and public testimony, to the council (North Pacific Fishery Management Council), a management measure that would result in the charter limit being as close to the allocation as possible,” said Rachel Baker, a fishery management specialist with NOAA/NFMS.

Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Halibut Coalition, a commercial halibut fishing association, said the new rules streamline a mechanism for creating a complicated distribution matrix used in the earlier version. He said the new plan increases the charter allocation by about 25 to 30 percent for area 3A, the management area that includes Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet.

Murphy said that the allocations under the revised catch sharing plan are not better than under the current status quo, and at higher abundance levels are worse than the 2008 version for area 3A. 

“The fact that the CSP offers to rent back the fish that will have been stolen from the guided  recreational angler strikes me as somewhat hypocritical,” Murphy said.

The public comment 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 www.regulations.gov

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 http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/