New halibut catch-sharing plan included in federal bill

A fresh commercial catch of halibut. (Angela Denning/KFSK)

Charter operators in the Gulf of Alaska will soon be able to buy halibut quota from willing commercial fishermen. That’s after funding was included for a new catch-sharing program in the federal omnibus budget bill, passed at the end of last month.

Seward’s Andy Mezirow is on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and has been a champion of the program for a while. He said it’s a long time coming. The program was vetoed by President Donald Trump in his final weeks in office and had to go through the Congressional approval process — twice.

“This language that made it into the omnibus bill has been kicking around Washington D.C. for like six years,” he said.

The plan is designed to fix a problem that can occur when halibut abundance in the gulf is low.

Halibut quota is divided between sport and commercial fishermen like the pieces of a pizza pie. In years of low yield, those slices are smaller.

And guides like Mezirow say those limits can make doing business difficult. When the slices of the pie are small, the fleet has to make do with less, through limits placed on how much they’re allowed catch.

“If [charter companies] don’t have to close any more days of the week, then they can fish for halibut seven days of the week, if they want to,” he said. “They’re fishing for five days a week now,”

The omnibus bill creates what’s called a recreational quota entity, or RQE. That’s the group of charter halibut fishermen in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska that will be able to pool funds and purchase halibut quota so they can take more fish when they’re out with clients.

The commercial fishermen will be reimbursed, in turn, for that quota. Previously, the NPFMC was considering a plan that would’ve sent quota to the charter fleet without paying the commercial fleet for it. Mezirow said that’s traditionally how quota has been reallocated between sectors.

“This way, when you’re transferring that value now, you’re not taking from one person that pays for it and giving it to others that didn’t,” he said. “That was sort of the fundamental flaw of allocation as it applies to catch shares.”

There were concerns among the commercial fleet when it was first on the table that the compensation would come from public funding, whereas commercial fishermen have to pay for quota themselves.

But commercial fisherman Matt Alward, who’s based out of Homer and heads the United Fishermen of Alaska, said that problem is fixed under the current state of the program, which is funded through the charter industry. Fees will be collected from clients, through a conservation stamp-like program for charter anglers.

“There was large support from the commercial side to get this legislation passed.” Alward said.

Mezirow said that fee will probably be between $10 or $20 that everyone on a charter boat will have to pay. The fee will not apply to resident or private anglers.

And the feds will still have to put together the regulations that will see the new program through. Mezirow is hopeful the program starts in 2024.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the recreational quota entity, or RQE, includes fishermen in Southeast Alaska, in addition to fishermen in the gulf.

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