Halibut charter operators seek revised bag limits during coronavirus travel restrictions

(KTUU)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With a bleak summer outlook for tourism in Alaska, halibut charter operators are asking federal managers to temporarily change regulations so that charter operations can attempt to make up lost revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to the Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, halibut charter stakeholders requested that for regulatory area 3A the regulations be changed to remove the annual limit for charter anglers, allow a daily bag limit of any size, and allow charter halibut fishing any day of the week as long as travel restrictions requiring a 14 day quarantine for people coming into the state are in place. The stakeholders also request a change for the reverse slot limit for charter anglers in Southeast Alaska and rolling over any unused charter allocation from 2020 into 2021.

Current regulations for area 3A, which extends from west of Kodiak to the top of the Alaska panhandle, allow guided fishermen to keep two halibut per day, but one must be 26 inches or less. Charter anglers may only keep four halibut in the year, and no charters are allowed to fish for halibut on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

In the region, fishermen without guides are allowed to keep two halibut of any size and fish any day of the week, and there is no annual limit.

“There might be an opportunity to attract some local business, and there’s a lot of anglers, residents of Alaska, that really fill their freezers with fish during the summer," said Richard Yamada, President of the Alaska Charter Association. “Not all of them can afford a boat. So now, maybe if properly advertised, people from Fairbanks or Anchorage could come down to Homer and get access like you did maybe five or six years ago when we didn’t have these restrictive bag limits.”

Each year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission decides how much of the stock of pacific halibut can be sustainably harvested and sets the quota for both the United States and Canada. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets allocation between the commercial and charter fleets in Alaska, and the regulations keep fishermen within the region’s quota become law in a Catch Sharing Plan published in the Federal Register from NOAA Fisheries.

“What we’re asking now is really almost like what they call in-season management,” said Yamada, who is also one of the three U.S. commissioners sitting on the IPHC. “We don’t have in our regulations right now a means to do that kind of in-season management where we can increase or decrease bag limits. We’ve always traditionally had bag limits for the whole season. So this is kind of an extraordinary situation, and it can only be done through emergency order.”

The logic of the charter operator’s request is that since there will be less fishing pressure this summer than expected when the regulations were set, the opportunity for guided anglers can be increased while the total harvest stays within the allocated quota.

“This is not a biological emergency, this is more of an economic emergency," Yamada said. "So the big question is how can we help the economies of these local communities through the charter fleet without jeopardizing the stock."

For area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, the request from charter stakeholders is different. They seek a larger reverse slot limit but only after travel restrictions are lifted. Current regulations require that halibut kept in region 2C be less than or equal to 40 inches or greater than or equal to 80 inches. Their request is to increase the lower end of the limit to 45 inches.

“About 95 percent of the clients are out of state people and travel up to Southeast," Yamada said, "so your business is basically shut down with that travel restriction, so we couldn’t be like 3A and still cater to some local business

“I think when you do the analysis, when increasing the slot limit, because of the low angler demand, both in terms of we’re not going to have the flood of people we normally have and because people are still going to be reluctant to travel, and then we’ll be starting later in the season, so you have a lot of fish that are not going to be coming out of the water," he continued. "So why not increase the opportunity of a little bit larger fish?That would help the businesses at least try to attract some clients for the remainder of the season.”

The request for rolling over unused allocation to 2021 is one Yamada calls a "unique concept."

“All the operators have seen cancellations, and if this travel ban continues we’re going to see 100 percent cancellations. So next year we need to have something in our toolbox to entice people back up,” Yamada said. “We’ll be leaving a lot of fish in the water. So the concept is that biologically, would that hurt if we rolled over some of that allocation.”

Yamada added that he doesn't expect the managers to give charters their full unused council, but allowing for a percentage of allocation that allows charters in Southeast the ability to sell the opportunity of a larger fish and gives charters in 3A more time on the water would help business.

The request is on the agenda for a special meeting of the North Council on May 15, but it could be considerably longer before any change to regulation is official. Both the federal council and the international commission would evaluate the long term risks the changes could have on the Pacific halibut stock.

“So you’re looking at May 15th for the North Council meeting. The earliest would be around June 1 for the IPHC. Then maybe two or more weeks for some regulatory review,” Yamada said. "But it’s worth a try. Who knows what might happen."

The North Council is limiting public testimony for its special meeting to written statements only. Comments are due Thursday, May 14.

You can read the full request and comment onlinehere.

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