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Halibut war

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Homer and Seward received notice earlier this year that they were in the top 10 of 300 towns nominated for “Ultimate Fishing Town USA” by the World Fishing Network (WFN). Nowhere in the announcement did it mention the war being fought over halibut, the fish that made Homer the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” Nowhere did it mention that a possibility exists that the present two-fish-per-day limit for halibut might soon be cut in half, or that the maximum size might be limited to 37 inches, or less.

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If you’ve been at all interested in fishing for halibut — as opposed to buying them from a store — you know that charter-boat owners have been fighting for their livelihoods in recent years. The hubbub was instigated by commercial long-line fishermen, who dominate the entire regulation-making process. The federal government now has set guideline harvest limits for charter boats fishing for halibut in Alaskan waters and has reduced the number of charter boats by about 30 percent. And that’s just for openers.

In Southeast Alaska, charter-boat anglers have been limited to harvesting one halibut per day for the past three seasons. This year, their one per day was further restricted by a regulation that says it can be no longer than 37-inches. Most recently, the feds are proposing a “catch-sharing” plan that would further establish the present commercial stranglehold on this publicly owned resource.

The business of taking people fishing for halibut has become questionable, indeed. With the world economy on the skids, people aren’t spending much “discretionary” income on fishing trips. To make matters worse, the feds are now threatening to limit charter-boat anglers in Southcentral Alaska waters to one halibut per day, possibly with a maximum size restriction of 37 inches.

In Homer, the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” owners of lodges, charter-boats and B & Bs face almost certain disaster if the feds implement a one-fish halibut limit, especially if that fish can’t exceed 37 inches in length. The Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby would be just a memory. Not many people will pay the going rate for a full-day halibut trip — $250, plus tips, taxes, travel and meal expenses — for one halibut, let alone a fish that can’t be longer than 37 inches. A 37-inch-long halibut weighs about 22 pounds, and its fillets would weigh about 12 pounds. That’s pretty expensive fish.

From my viewpoint, the future for halibut charter-boat fishing looks bleak. With charter-boats limited to something on the order of 15 percent of the total harvest and commercial fishermen getting the rest, something has to give. I’m thinking that anglers should’ve fought for 50 percent of the harvest.

If you’re thinking you’ll avoid all this and simply buy your own boat, think again. Anglers fishing from privately owned boats will be next to be blessed with what commercial interests like to refer to as “conservation measures.”

Many years ago, Americans demanded laws that made commercial game hunting illegal. Why do we continue to allow commercial fishermen to not only “hunt” the ocean, but to also dominate the rule-making authority?

I once thought that charter-boat fishing could be key to diversifying and strengthening the economy of small towns along coastal Alaska. Now I’m wondering.

To learn more, visit the Alaska Charter Association website (www.alaskacharter.org). The comment period for the catch-sharing plan ends Sept. 6.

Reach Les Palmer at lpalmer@alaska.net.

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