The guided halibut charter fleet for Area 3A, including Homer, had its allocation set at 1.71 million pounds for the 2020 season at International Pacific Halibut Commission meetings last week in Anchorage. That’s better than some captains had feared, but to err on the side of conservation, the IPHC approved slightly more-stringent regulations recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
“We got the best possible outcome available,” said charter captain Ben Martin of North Country Charters, who is president of the Homer Charter Association. “… I’m coming away with it as a win for us.”
Under the new regulations, guided anglers cannot fish or keep halibut on Tuesdays as well as the current Wednesdays closure. They can still keep two fish per day, with one halibut of any size, but the second fish allowed has been reduced from under the current limit of 28 inches to under 26 inches.
“The potential allocation was lower and would have meant even more restrictive measures,” said Stephen Keith, Assistant Director of the IPHC.
The old rules remain of an annual limit of four fish per charter fisherman, a limit of one charter trip per vessel per day, a limit of one charter trip per charter halibut permit per day and the two fish daily bag limit.
IPHC regulations being decided takes uncertainty out of the 2020 summer tourist season so that charter businesses can make bookings. It also means the first Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center Halibut Fishing Tournament to be held June 5 and 6 can proceed.
“That allows us to know there won’t be annual conflicts of a Friday-Saturday fishing tournament, and the annual catch of four fish stays in place,” Chamber Executive Director Brad Anderson said Tuesday. “That’s what we needed to know.”
Charter captains had feared stricter restrictions if the IPHC had gone with a guided halibut allocation of less than 1.588 million pounds. The IPHC makes allocations that affect the entire directed fishery of both the guided halibut fleet and commercial fishermen. The total halibut allocation for Area 3A, which includes the central Gulf of Alaska, was set at 12.20 million pounds. The commercial fleet for 3A got 7.05 million pounds.
Unlike allocation battles decades ago, where charter fishermen and longliners tussled over their share of the fish, a rule called the Catch Sharing Plan divides the allocation on a percentage basis.
“That’s a big positive and big change,” Martin said of the charter fleet’s relationship with longliners. “We’re in the same boat. If they get an increase, we get an increase. If we get a decrease, they get a decrease.”
In Homer that brings fishermen together. Martin said at the IPHC meetings, charter captains and longliners were talking together. A second-generation charter captain working in the business founded by his parents, Sean and Gerry Martin, Ben Martin said the Homer Charter Association has seen younger captains becoming more active.
“(We’ve) got a young group heading it that has 30 years ahead of them,” he said. “They don’t have the bad blood of fighting longliners for halibut. … We want to work together.”
The Charter Halibut Management Committee of the NPFMC had been working over the winter with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to come up with potential management measures under different scenarios. The Homer Charter Association also had been meeting to develop consensus on what measures would fit their business models.
Under the worst-case scenarios, the allocation could have meant four Thursdays closed to guided fishing as well as Tuesdays or, even worse, a one-fish bag limit with a reverse-slot limit of one fish under 58 inches or one fish over 80 inches. A memorandum from the charter committee called that the “nuclear option” and said it would have disastrous consequences to the 3A charter fleet and associated tourist industries.
Martin said letters and comments helped sway the IPHC to go with the best-case scenario.
“When we were up there we told them the issues,” he said. “The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly wrote a resolution and passed it unanimously in support of the charter sector, saying ‘Don’t’ take anything from us.’ The public comment and testimony, they heard it and listened to it.”
The IPHC this year used a new scientific model to assess male-female ratios of halibut, Keith said. Scientists had always known there were more females caught than males, at least in commercial landings. Male halibut tend to be smaller and less likely to be caught by longliners.
“We now have a way of genetically testing the fish so we can tell what sex they are,” he said in a phone interview from Seattle. “We have this data for the very first time. It shows the fraction of the female landings are higher than estimated.”
The male-female ratio of fish caught is more of a concern in the commercial halibut fishery. Most fish taken in the recreational fishery, including guided fishing, are smaller and more evenly split male-female, Keith said.
From a scientific perspective, that new data didn’t warrant a change in how halibut stocks are managed, he noted. The halibut stock in general has been trending slowly downward since 2016, Keith said.
“The key result is, even with the new information, a comparison of this year’s stock to previous, the stock is continuing the same trend as predicted in the last several years,” he said.
That downward trend will continue even without fishing pressure, Martin said.
“The scientists basically said if we were to stop fishing completely, no halibut, the stock would be in decline for three or more years,” he said.
Keith said the halibut stock has been coming down from its highest levels in 1999 and 2000. Based on information going back 140 years, scientists also know the stock experiences big swings over decades. Scientists don’t know why, or that it’s necessarily due to fishing pressure.
“What we do know is apart from any intervention by human beings the stock goes up and down in its own,” Keith said.
Looking ahead at the steady decline, Martin said the IPHC has warned the charter fleet to expect reductions.
“One thing we do know is next year we’re going to be looking at some pretty drastic cuts,” he said. “… The good thing is I can spend the rest of my summer preparing clients for that.”