Future Of Halibut

A halibut being caught. Photo taken by Carter Thomas

Carter Thomas
Staff Writer

Two anglers decided to rent a boat and go halibut fishing. After the long day of reeling in their limits, they headed back to the dock. They pulled up right next to Rick Collins’ boat, packed with four out-of-state fishermen. They watched as they unloaded 4 halibut averaging 25-30 lbs each (all under the legal limit of 38” each). Then, his clientes watched the 2 fisherman, mouths drooling, as the two of them heaved and pulled out 4 big ones, averaging 60 pounds a fish. Under the current system and regulations, this happens constantly, leaving guided fisherman and their captains unhappy. Some aim to balance the playing field and even up the regulations between the two sectors.

New Regulations

Since the implementation of the catch sharing plan in Jan of 2014, there seems to have been an increase in the number of rental boats. New legislation has been proposed to register all rental boats, and align the rental fleet’s catch limit with the charter fleet. Initial discussions on this legislation will be discussed during the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s (North Council) next meeting in October. Because halibut is a federally regulated fish, the State of Alaska cannot discriminate between resident and non-resident. Instead, new regulation must target means and methods of fishing. Jeff Wedekine, a board member on the Alaska Charter Association and owner of Chinook Shores Lodge in Ketchikan, supports the registry as long as it isn’t too time consuming or cost prohibitive.

“There is a proposal to identify how many rental boats there are by making them register, and then within that proposal was also a secondary proposal to align the rental boat catch limits with the charter boat catch limit,” said Wedekine. “I’m all for them wanting to register the boats as long as they can do it in a manner that’s not going to cost us a ton of time and a ton of money unnecessarily.”

Although Wedekine supports the registery, he does not agree with the alignment of the charter and rental catch because of the lack of data on the issue.

“I am not for aligning our catch with the charter boats because we have no idea how many fish we are actually catching.”

Andy Mezirow, a charter representative on the North Council, said that even though he doesn’t have hard proof, he believes a registration and limiting entry is vital to fixing the issue.

“We need to at least create a registration and probably are going to need to limit entry to the existing participants so that there isn’t a continued growth in that sector,” said Mezirow. “There has been a large growth of rental boats since the catch sharing plan was put into place. We have to figure out how many of them there are.”

Each year an annual catch limit is established for each management area.  Estimated harvest by subsistence and recreational anglers is taken out before the remaining quota is divided between guided recreational and commercial fishermen as outlined in the catch sharing plan.  Forest Braden, a charter operator and the executive director at Southeast Alaska Guides Organization (SEAGO), believes subsistence might not be a legitimate way of living nowadays.

“I think in times of low abundance, there should be regulation for everyone using the resource. I’m not sure subsistence is truly subsistence in southeast right now,” said Braden. “The way I hear some people using it, it seems to me like everyone needs to be careful (with the resource) in times of low abundance.”

No Data

One issue many have with the proposal to decrease the rental fleet catch is that there is little-to-no data on how much fish they are catching or how big the fleet is. Mezirow said that the fleet is rapidly growing in the eyes of local alaskans.

““That’s just my hunch, and I don’t have facts to back that up, but when I talk to people in Southeast Alaska there are a lot of new rental boats.”

Wedekine said that he believes the North Council may be making up an issue to reduce the catch.

“They are scared that people are using the rental boats as a way to circumvent the charter rules,” said Wedekine. “I think they are making up an issue that doesn’t really exist in an effort to reduce our catch.”

Wedekine also said the reason rental boat business owners are so upset is because of the lack of data. It seems to them the North Council is targeting their fleet.

“There is absolutely no data or proof that people in rental boats catch any more fish than people that are just fishing in there own boat or a borrowed boat,” said Wedekine. “It sounds like they are creating a lot of concern without any data. That’s where a lot of the rental boat guys are having heartburn.”        

Local Businesses Effected

Alaska businesses have already felt the negative impacts of lower fish regulations. Some guided fishing business owners have started offering some non-guided options to retain clients who were looking for more opportunity.  Braden, Wedekine, and many other business owners in this sector believe the proposal would hurt their business further.

“As a charter operator, I have lost clients to non-guided operations because the limits matter to them. It has hurt my business severly,” said Braden. “I’ve lost people to non-guided operations and i’ve just plain lost people because the regulations are too strict.”  Operators like Braden are worried that these additional regulations on non-guided boats will further impact their businesses.

Jeff Wedekine takes it even a step further.

“If they aligned the catches, many people will have to throw back the only halibut they catch all week. The charter boats have an edge because they know where the small fish are, and run 30 miles to do it. Most of the rental boat guys have no idea where to find these fish,” said Wedekine. “I think it would be a disaster for our clientele. People would get very frustrated and possibly not return.”

Other Alternatives

There are other alternatives that may be more attractive to some Alaskans. Mezirow would like to see a different approach for the rental fleet, like lowering the limit over time instead of aligning the bag catch with the charter fisherman immediately.

““There are a broad range of alternatives from no action to creating a registration and aligning the bag limit with charters, which I think is probably a harsh way to go about it,” said Mezirow. “ I’d like to see a softer landing for the rental boats, like lowering the bag limit incrementally over time.”     

Mezirow also said that he would like if the council took a broader view and encapsulated more fisherman, such as yachts and condos into the proposal.

“I think what they need to do is create a regulation that takes a broader look at it, because it’s not just rental boats,” said Mezirow. “There are also Yachts that come up and operate as time shares or condos. There are all these variations of businesses that profit from retaining halibut.”

Some Alaskans think that a “one fish for all” recipe would be the most beneficial outcome. Wedekine said that he is all for conservation and sharing, but that the rental fleet shouldn’t be targeted.

“ If the halibut population is that bad, maybe they should go one fish for everybody, whether they are renting a boat or not,” said Wedekine. “I understand sharing and conservation, but I don’t understand targeting a specific group and making them the bad guy.”

Mezirow and the other 10 voting board members on the North Council will discuss and potentially vote on these issues in October.

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