New halibut regs coming in 2014

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Monday that Southeast and Southcentral Alaska halibut fishermen will be managed under new allocation rules in 2014.

Under the new catch sharing plan, or CSP, commercial and charter operators in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska will have a combined catch limit next summer. Each sector will receive a certain percentage of the combined limit. The exact percentages are different in Area 2C, Southeast, and Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska, and also vary with halibut abundance.

At times of lower abundance, guided anglers get a larger portion of the halibut stock while commercial fishermen get less.

The final rule for the CSP will be published in the federal register Dec. 12, and implemented in 2014, according to the NMFS announcement.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved the plan in 2012, and asked that it be implemented in 2014. NMFS worked to finalize the regulations, and published the proposed rule this summer, extending the comment period once to allow additional time for the public to weigh in.

Despite the plan’s implementation, the 2014 catch limits remain uncertain, even as the council prepares to decide what management measures to use to keep charter operators within their allocation of fish.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, sets the combined catch limits annually. The North Pacific council developed the split between the two user groups, and will make recommendations on the management measures needed to keep the charter sector within its allocation.

Previously, the charter fishery was allocated a portion of the halibut stock before the commercial limit was set, meaning that charters took fewer cuts in times when halibut stocks were low.

While the catch limit is unknown, the North Pacific council is scheduled to make its decision about management measures at the meeting that begins Dec. 11.

Seward charter operator and fisherman Andy Mezirow said that is a backwards process. It would make more sense if management measures were chosen after a catch limit was set, he said.

“We’re kind of taking the chicken before the egg,” he said.

Under the estimate for 2014 catches released last week, both charter and commercial operators would have access to less fish than they did in 2013, but that number is not set in stone. The IPHC will make a final determination on the limit in January. Last year, the commission chose a higher limit than the preliminary recommendation, although the limits still reflected a cut compared to 2014.

The declining catches are due what scientists believe is a decrease in halibut biomass.

Under the preliminary recommendation, guided anglers in Southcentral would have a limit of 1.78 million pounds, down from a 2.73 million pound guideline harvest limit in 2013. Guided anglers in Southeast would have access to 760,000 pounds, down from a 788,000-pound limit in 2013.

Commercial anglers would be limited to about 7.32 million pounds in Southcentral and 3.32 million pounds in Southeast.

Unguided anglers do not count toward those limits.

Regardless of the final limits, Mezirow said he didn’t think any charter operators in Southcentral were going to go out of business — and the foreshadowed bag limit reduction to one fish was not going to happen, he said.

During the summer, part of the charter industry, largely concentrated in Southcentral, launched a campaign to tell the public that the new management structure would result in a decreased catch for guided anglers.

Alaska Charter Association was part of that effort.

Rex Murphy, from the Alaska Charter Association, said his group was aware that the final rule was going to be published. ACA President David Bayes did not immediately respond to a request for further comments on the plan.

Mezirow was not among those claiming that the plan would result in the lower limit, and said it was clear all along that it wouldn’t happen.

Once the final rule was announced, however, Mezirow said he thought there were some changes that could improve the program.

Those could come forward through the council process as trailing amendments, he said. Ideally, Mezirow said he’d like to see changes to the quota leasing provision, a possible reduction in the number of permits, and a change to the schedule that has the council deciding on management measures before the catch limit is set.

SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard said he’d also like to see a discussion of subarea management, so that management measures could better reflect fishery dynamics in different parts of one regulatory area.

The North Pacific council is expected to select management measures this week. The recommendation from the charter committee calls for a two-fish bag limit in Southcentral, with the possibility of putting a size limit on one fish or limiting operators to one trip per day. For Southeast, the recommendation calls for one fish with a reverse slot limit — a retained halibut would have to be less than 44 inches or greater than 76 inches.

Mezirow noted that even if management measures are slightly more restrictive in Southcentral Alaska this summer, it’s the first cut for the area, and coming at a time of a low abundance of halibut. If this is the worst the cuts get, at a low point in abundance, the industry is doing ok, he said.

To have made it this long without cuts is positive, he said.

The commercial limit is divided among fishermen who hold individual fishing quota, or IFQ, in the area based on the amount of quota they have.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said her group was glad to see the plan implemented.

“We hail it as a real win for the resource, a fair balance between different user groups and a way to finally resolve a long standing conflict between sectors,” Behnken said.

The CSP also eliminated captain and crew fish, and created a provision that will allow commercial individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders to lease a portion of their quota to charter operators.

Molly Dischner can be reached at