The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council approved a proposal in a special meeting May 15 that would make going on a halibut charter more attractive to Alaskans this year, as a way to help mitigate the impacts COVID-19 is having on the industry.
Councilmember Andy Mezirow, who owns a charter business in Seward, motioned to enact a proposal that will relax restrictions on charter operators in area 3A, Southcentral, and 2C, Southeast.
“Clearly no amount of regulatory change is going to make this a profitable year but this action, in conjunction with federal assistance, will contribute to a coordinated effort to help Alaska charter operators make it through this pandemic,” Mezirow said.
Tourism is being hit hard by the pandemic. State health mandates are crippling to charter fishing. Currently, boats can fish at 50 percent capacity, unless the clientele lives together, in which case boats can take a full load of household members. Recommendations on frequent cleanings, not sharing rods and maintaining social distancing are challenging but not undoable.
But the 14-day quarantine period for anyone traveling to Alaska is a business killer. Out-of-state visitors account for the vast majority of charter clients — 97 percent in Southeast and 70 to 82 percent in Southcentral, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Mezirow said his charter had 57 bookings for the summer season in February and is down to 27 now.
The proposal is meant to make charter trips more appealing to Alaska residents to at least somewhat compensate for the loss in out-of-state clients.
In Southeast, the proposal changes the lower end of the current slot limit. Instead of a minimum 40 pounds, charter anglers could keep fish that are a minimum 45 pounds, up to 80 pounds. The one-fish per-day limit would remain in effect.
In Southcentral, current regulations for charter anglers are a two-fish per-day bag limit, with one fish of any size and the second being 26 inches or less, an annual four-fish limit and no halibut retention on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The proposal as submitted by the charter industry was a change to no size restriction on the second fish, no annual limit of fish and no Tuesday and Wednesday fishing closures.
Mezirow’s motion changed that to a second fish size limit of 32 inches. He said he wanted to make sure harvest stayed within the allocation set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Fish and Game’s best estimate was that having no size limit in 3A might mean there would need to be as much as a 60 percent reduction in charter harvest this year to not exceed the area’s allocation.
“I think it’s an unacceptable reach for council to assume that we’re going to see a 50 or 60 percent reduction in guided halibut fishing,” Mezirow said. “… So if the outcome of this action provides improved angler opportunity in a very difficult time and still leaves some fish in the water to live for another year, that’s better than overharvesting our allocation yet another year in this difficult time.”
The proposal as submitted tied the changes to state-imposed travel restrictions but Meizerow’s proposal is for the changes to remain in effect the entire season.
The charter industry also proposed rolling any unused allocation this fishing year into the next but the council declined to vote on that matter.
Several submitted public commenters opposed the proposal, essentially advocating to give fish a break. Mezirow said the proposal is conservation-minded, as long as it stays within allocations.
“You could give the halibut a break and nobody could go fishing, none of the directed fisheries, and we could just leave them all in the water this year and see what happens,” Mezirow said. “But I don’t know why, if we’re fishing within our allocation, that we would also want to leave fish in the water that were allocated to us.”
Vice Chair Bill Tweit, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he thinks the charter harvest will be reduced this year even with this proposal.
“I think we do, as a council, we have a responsibility to ensure that this industry, which offers access for a lot of people in both 2C and 3A, that we have a level of responsibility, to the best we can, to help ensure that this industry survives this and remains to offer a public service to people in future years,” Tweit said.
The council voted 10 to one to approve the measure, with Jim Balsiger, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, being the no vote.
Approval by the IPHC is still needed. The IPHC says it is able to make minor revisions to fishery regulations within 24 hours but changes don’t take effect until regulatory agencies ratify and publish the new regulations. That process could take five weeks.