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Recommended halibut limits rattle Homer commercial, charter fleets

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As the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in Anchorage to discuss halibut and other fish management measures, newly released preliminary halibut catch limit recommendations by International Pacific Halibut Commission staff alarmed the halibut fishing industry in Homer.

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"What I see that's probably most important is it just throws everything out," said Buck Laukitis, a longtime Homer commercial halibut fisherman and president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association, a fishing advocacy group. "There is no status quo now. That news from the IPHC is going to rock everybody's world."

At a meeting Dec. 2 in Seattle, the IPHC staff made these preliminary recommendations for 2012 in Area 3A, southcentral Alaska, including Cook Inlet:

• For the commercial fishing catch limit, 11.92 million pounds, a 17 percent reduction from 14.3 million pounds in 2011;

• For the guided sport fishery, a guideline harvest level of 3.1 million pounds, a 15 percent reduction from the 2004-2010 guideline harvest level of 3.65 million pounds. (For IPHC recommendations for other areas, see Seawatch in the Real Estate & Business section, page 1.)

"For Homer in general, this is not good news," said Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Monte Davis.

"That drastic a reduction does not bode well for the community in any shape or form," Davis said.

The combined catch limit for guided sport and commercial fishermen would be 15.57 million pounds. The only good news in the IPHC recommendation for charter fishermen is that the controversial catch sharing plan was delayed for 2012. The North Council has on its agenda answering questions the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries raised after receiving public comments last summer on the plan.

If the catch sharing plan had been in effect, under a matrix suggested, the charter fleet would have gotten 14 percent of that 15.57 million pounds — an allocation of 2.17 million pounds.

That would have meant a one-fish limit under the matrix. Whether or not the Area 3A charter fleet will have a one-fish limit is part of what the North Council will consider in its recommendations to the IPHC. The IPHC sets final catch limits at its Jan. 24-27 meetings in Anchorage.

In 2010, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated the Area 3A charter catch was 2.7 million pounds. The IPHC estimates the 2011 charter catch will be 2.84 million pounds. Both numbers are below the 2011 guideline harvest level of 3.65 million pounds and the recommended 2012 guideline harvest level of 3.1 million pounds.

Greg Sutter, president of the Alaska Charter Association, was at a meeting Tuesday for the Charter Halibut Implementation Committee for the North Council. Suter said the committee recommended the IPHC cut to 3.1 million pounds for the guideline harvest level. Because the 3A charter fleet isn't projected to catch over that in 2012, Suter said he thinks the charter fleet here will keep the two-fish limit. If the IPHC thinks the charter fleet will go over the guidelines, the implementation committee recommended as options to prohibit captains and crew from taking halibut on charters and setting annual bag limits.

Sutter said the implementation committee also recommended charter logbook entries be reported electronically to speed up the Alaska Department of Fish and Game catch reporting.

One concern is that if IPHC goes with a more conservative number, the catch limits could be even worse than the staff recommendations. Although IPHC staff did not recommend it for 2012, one scenario set a commercial fishing catch limit of 5.3 million pounds for Area 3A and a guideline harvest level of 2 million pounds. That scenario isn't likely, but similar numbers could be on the table in future years if halibut stocks don't improve.

"If they choose to go with the lower end, it's going to be bad for everybody," said Brian Bondioli, a charter captain and vice president of the Alaska Charter Association.

If the IPHC went with the guideline harvest level of 2 million pounds, that would be a one-fish limit — possibly forever, Bondioli said.

Laukitis said he isn't surprised at the lower IPHC recommendations. Fishermen have known that the weight and size relative to age of the exploitable biomass has been declining.

"We were hoping that trend would reverse itself," Laukitis said. "We keep thinking we're on the cusp of getting a turnaround."

Despite the gloomy catch recommendations, fishermen and others acknowledge that conservation and sustainability of the halibut resource takes priority.

"It's pretty clear conservation needs to be an issue. They cannot fish the halibut into oblivion," Davis said. "The chamber needs to be supportive of conservation efforts."

Laukitis agreed that the fishery has to be sustainable.

"Fishermen are by necessity conservation minded people," he said. "We have to get the resource to the right level where it can sustain itself."

Kevin Hogan, owner of the Auction Block, a fish buying and processing business, and a Homer City Council member, echoed what Davis and Laukitis said.

"As far as the halibut resource, the resource has to come first," he said.

As a council member, Hogan had lobbied for the IPHC to hold its annual meeting in Homer. With the news of the cuts, he now says it might be good the meeting isn't here.

"It will be an interesting argument at the commission meetings," Hogan said of staff discussions on the recommended cuts.

How the reductions in halibut catches affect the fishing and tourist industries remains to be seen. Homer's maritime and fish processing sectors are supported by both sport and commercial caught halibut.

"Commercially or charter wise, I can't see how there can be any winners next year," Davis said.

Davis said the chamber already has begun revising the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, with its traditional grand prize for the heaviest halibut.

"I can tell you we're making drastic changes to the halibut derby to be proactive," he said.

Charter fishermen have said commercial fishermen can absorb cuts in quota because the price for halibut goes up. Laukitis said he doesn't see a 17-percent price increase to make up for a 17-percent drop in catch limits.

"When things get high, you lose market," he said. "At a certain point you price yourself out of the market."

Hogan said the cut in catch limits will be difficult.

"The fortunate thing is we have enough time to react and implement other business strategies," he said. "It's been a big deal for Homer the amount of fish crossing the dock."

The IPHC recommended cuts affirm what scientists and fishermen have been saying for years, Hogan said.

"I think there's recognition there are a lot of fish out there and they're not growing. I think the feeling is for some people there aren't enough groceries to go around," he said, referring to competition among halibut with other fish species. "There are a lot of mouths and not much growing up going on."

Sutter said he hopes the North Council can come up with a halibut management plan that will satisfy both charter and commercial fishermen.

"I've got a positive outlook," he said. "Once there's a good plan developed, it will diminish a lot of the animoisty we see, especially coming out of Southeast. I've got a lot of friends who are commercial fishermen, and I want it to remain that way."

Some see hope and a better fishery coming from the cuts. Laukitis pointed to past drastic cuts that fishermen took in Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, and how the situation has improved. That's one area that saw a recommended catch share increase this year.

"The hopeful thing is these sacrifices will pay dividends down the line and stop the decline and go the other way," Hogan said. "The number of fish are out there. There are plenty of juveniles. They just need to start growing."

Sutter agreed.

"This downturn right now is going to be temporary," he said. "As these fish mature and grow, it's really going to help the fishery."

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