Halibut efforts increase with dwindling limits
Clarification: The Halibut charter trip limit mentioned in this story only applies in Area 3A, a fishing area including coastal waters from Kodiak to Yakutat. The prohibition on skipper and crew harvest, already in effect in Southeast Alaska’s Area 2C, became law in Area 3A for 2014.
The Resurrection Bay charter industry is facing more pressure than ever as allowable halibut catches are reduced by new regulations amid expanding competition as the number of boats and trips on area waters increase. In the midst of swirling controversy, Captain Andy Mezirow of Crackerjack Sportfishing Charters has been working to navigate a course between a resource in transition, large commercial interests that dominate the regulatory process and the local charter operators who, he claims, contribute more to the local economy than the tour boat industry.
Mezirow addressed a crowded room at a Seward Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday and explained a new feature of charter regulations that allows charter operators to purchase additional catch from commercial operators. Mezirow says that this market based solution, while not yet perfect, allows commercial permit holders to garner a premium price for their halibut allotment. The way the numbers pencil out charter operators can generally offer a better price per pound if permittees have a justification put their allotment into play.
The flip side of the proposal is that charter operators will be able to offer more opportunity for anglers to snag more and bigger halibut on one outing. With catch limits dwindling to one halibut under a recent proposal by commercial interests benefiting from the federal Individual Fishing Quota system, the initiative isn’t looking to open up the floodgates, it’s just aiming at a happy medium against a tide of narrowing opportunity and increasing regulation.
On their face, those new regulations are restricting clients of area 3A charter operators to two halibut per day with a size limit on the second fish. Area 3A covers Southcentral Alaska and Area 2C, which is already at the one fish daily catch limit, defines the Southeast Alaska fishery. In either region, charter operators can only take out a single halibut charter per day and the captain and crew are prohibited from fishing. And with four new charter boats operating out of Seward this summer, pressure on the resource continues to subdivide the harvest.
According to the Alaska Charter Association, the recreational harvest amounts to about 10 percent of the yearly total with IFQ based commercial interests gobbling up 90 percent. In 1995 recreational anglers lost a preference for access to halibut and other species when the IFQ program was instituted with permits assigned preferentially among qualifying commercial operators. According to the ACA these permits are bought and sold without regard to their public value and, over the years since, are valued at $1.5 billion.
In response to criticism from the those commercial operators, a catch share plan now restricts the charter harvest based an estimate of the amount of fish in the area. This estimate and resulting limits parallels how the commercial harvest is regulated and Mezirow says the system assigns a reasonable level of accountability to the charter industry. He notes that, in contrast to private anglers, charters are another commercial interest impacting the overall resource.
However, one of the problems with the current formula is a roller coaster effect on bag limits that isn’t addressed. Mezirow and the charter industry is looking for more flexibility in the ability to lease fish quota from the commercial permittees. He says maintaining a consistent bag limit from year to year is critical to maintaining the industry.
Crackerjack and cohabitator Profish-n-Sea Charters have dominated the local charter catch for halibut year on year in the past decade and Mezirow as well as Profish-n-Sea’s Captain Steve Zernia operate a small fleet of boats with well recognized abilities in steering their clients to prime catches. However Mezirow says that the ocean, resources and technology are changing and fisheries are never going to return to the way they used to be.
According to Mezirow, one of the challenges in coming to conclusions about abundance and bag limits is lack of data. For example, he and his associates have applied for a grant on studying halibut catch and release mortality with the aim of increasing fish available to charter anglers. The funds are underwriting a study this summer on practical methods of cutting down on damage to fisheries by current practices. By improving handling, the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 halibut killed through charter operations can be reduced, freeing up that many more to be caught on charters.
Another grant is funding the further development and distribution of a smartphone app that will allow anglers to take a camera shot of a fish and compute the size on the spot. This is possible because the distance between the eye socket and a gill flap on a halibut can accurately tell the size and weight of the specimen. That data along with phone’s GPS position and a scan of the fishing license can be uploaded to regulators on the day, providing a very specific harvest count.
By far the largest scale grant funded project Mezirow and his task force have undertaken is what he calls “The Novel.” It is a comprehensive attempt at a long-term solution to the allocation issue that fine tunes a catch program that will consider harvest between recreational users and charter operators and allow a market based balancing of the take of anglers against the quotas of the commercial fisheries.
In a nutshell, Mezirow says the the idea behind the catch program is to purchase commercial quota to compensate for lower abundance caused by the angler harvest. Funding for the proposed system would come from a stamp purchased to endorse state fishing licenses. He says the implementation could be as far away as 4 to 5 years with a big hurdle being how to compensate processors for up to half a million pounds less in landings.
The proposal will be introduced as a discussion paper for review at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in October. “We just want to make sure we have something worth coming to Seward to fish for,” Mezirow says. “I hope that we can resolve this before I get out of this business. I’d love to leave something stable for the next generation.”