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Econ 919 — Council will rehash halibut allocation after charter operators say they're struggling

Photo: Angela Denning/KFSK

Federal fishery managers might change how they divvy up halibut available for harvest in the Gulf of Alaska. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted this week to review its current plan and consider sending more of the resource to the charter fishing fleet when halibut abundance is low.

It’s a divisive issue that drew heated testimony from stakeholders across Southeast and Southcentral Alaska this week. But proponents of the review hope it can be a backstop in case a preferred approach to compensate commercial fishermen for quota falls through.

Homer is among the Alaska communities that will be impacted by any changes in allocation.

Brian Ritchie is a charter operator out of Homer and vice president of the Homer Charter Association. He said he helped council member Andy Mezirow draw up some potential ways that allocation could be divided. 

“I'm 31 years old, so I wasn’t here for a lot of the original fights that happened over allocations in the past several decades," he said. "But I understand there are still some deep wounds and a lot of people are afraid of seeing that divisiveness again, especially in local communities.”

Think about halibut allocation like a pizza. 

The pie in its entirety represents the total amount of halibut that fishermen from all sectors are allowed to catch in a given season.

Each sector, commercial or charter, gets its own slice of the pie. In the central Gulf of Alaska last year, for example, the charter sector was allowed to take about 17.5 percent of the 11 million pounds of halibut allocated. The remaining 82.5 percent went to the commercial fleet.

Some years, when halibut abundance is worse off, that pizza is smaller, so the slices are, too. 

That’s why council member Mezirow, who runs a charter business out of Seward, said the council should consider recutting the pizza. When it’s too small, they get left with very little and have to close or limit trips.

It’s a concern guides brought up during the hours of testimony at the meeting this week.

“The year after the original catch share plan was implemented, there was – I don’t know if I would call it a crash in the halibut stock, but there was a large decline in observed abundance in the Fishery-Independent Setline Survey, which led to lower allocation," Ritchie said.

That survey is performed annually by the joint U.S. and Canadian commission that oversees catches coast wide.

The council was due to consider reviewing its current catch-sharing plan – first set in 2014 – this year. Mezirow said it was a good time to reconsider how the plan was hurting charter operators. 

He suggested the council consider making the charter sector’s slice bigger when abundance is low, simultaneously shrinking the commercial slice. In times of greater abundance, he said the charter slice should get smaller.

But commercial halibut fishermen said that’s unfair. They want to get paid for the pizza, not give it away for free.

Pizza metaphor aside, commercial fisherman Malcolm Milne said he’s disappointed the council took a step further than its advisory panel did. Milne fishes for halibut out of Homer and heads the North Pacific Fisheries Association, a group for Cook Inlet commercial fishermen.

“I thought the ranges were a little excessive," he said. "And people who have quota are understandably nervous that the quota they thought they were investing in under a regime or a stated policy is now subject to change and so people are nervous that their investment may lose value all of a sudden.”

Last year, commercial fisherman Erik Velsko, of Homer, suggested to the council’s advisory panel that it factor another figure into the equation: bycatch, or the incidental take of halibut in other fisheries.

Bycatch has historically been responsible for 7 to 14 percent of area-wide halibut mortality. Of that bycatch, the majority comes from the trawl fleet, according to the council’s report.

“They keep dividing up these communities," Velsko said. "We live with these guys. Our kids go to school together with charter operators. And I just think it’s crazy, we totally disregard the bycatch waste and constantly start these fights among user groups that are largely the same people, you know?”

The panel voted against incorporating Velsko’s amendment into the plan.

There is a chance, however, that another plan goes into place altogether. That plan would allow charter operators to buy quota from willing commercial fishermen, something called compensated reallocation

That program would be one of the first of its kind but is again waiting on federal approval. The bill passed through Congress in 2020 but was vetoed by Former President Donald Trump two weeks before he left office. 

The council said it would prefer that method and would likely table any conversations about uncompensated allocation if it passes.

Mezirow said he wants to make sure there’s a policy placeholder in case it doesn’t go through right away.

“Uncompensated reallocation is not our first choice," he said. "But getting a look at this one more time, giving us a chance to see if there's a landing place, is doing our due diligence.”

Council member Cora Campbell wasn’t convinced.

Campbell, who’s the CEO of processing company Silver Bay Seafoods, said rehashing the allocation debate will be destabilizing.

“Unfortunately, this further analysis comes at a real human cost," she said. "I live in the community of Sitka and that community was torn apart by this allocation dispute. And some of those wounds have not yet healed. And the idea that we would do something like this, just – we shouldn’t do it lightly.”

She was one of three “no” votes on Mezirow’s motion.

Mezirow said it’s important to note that a reconsideration of allocation does not mean the council will definitely change how it slices the pie.

A review of the current plan is expected to come before the council in December.

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