Bill to boost quota for Alaska halibut charter operators heads to Trump’s desk

A deckhand lands a halibut on a charter fishing trip.
A deckhand lands a halibut on a charter fishing trip.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 11, 2020 at 7:27 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A bill to fund a first-of-its-kind program that will enable sportfishing charters to purchase Pacific halibut quota from the commercial sector is headed to the president’s desk after passing through both chambers of Congress.

The bill will allow a fee, likely a halibut stamp, to be required to fish for halibut on charters in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska. The revenue from those stamps will be used to purchase more quota for the charter halibut fleet, allowing anglers less restricted fishing regulations and give businesses more opportunity to sell trips.

As the abundance of halibut has declined in recent years, the charter fleet has been restricted to avoid catching more than its allocation. The regulations change based on the status of the stock each year. Although some regulations were loosened this year due to the pandemic, recently charter operators in Southcentral have been unable to fish for halibut on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

For more than a decade, charter operators have been working on a legislative fix to help buffer their businesses against the fluctuations in regulations.

In 2018, the North Pacific Fishery Council approved the creation of nonprofit entity called the Recreational Quota Entity. A final rule effective in October of 2018 outlines a program where the RQE can purchase quota from willing commercial halibut quota holders. This week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that gives the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and Secretary of Commerce the ability to approve regulations requiring charter operators to pay fees on vessels that harvest Pacific halibut in South Central and Southeast Alaska.

The 2018 rule outlines much of the criteria, including the maximum amount of quota the RQE may purchase from the commercial sector. However, specifics of how the fee will be administered and how much it will be has not been determined.

“I think the RQE program will benefit the charter fleet because right now we don’t know from one year to the next how many days a week that we’re going to be closed for the subsequent year, or the size of the second fish, or in Southeast Alaska how big that fish will even be, the one that they get there,” said Andy Mezirow, a Seward-based charter operator and member of the NPFMC.

Typically when fish resources are reallocated from one sector to another, its done by a politically appointed government entity. The traditional processes for reallocation inevitably create winners and losers.

“The bottom line is the commercial fishermen have invested millions of dollars to purchase quota, and when we talk about adjusting allocation, it’s really hard to take fish away from somebody, an Alaskan that’s paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for those rights, just to convert them into quota for recreational use,” Mezirow said. “So this sort of allows us to use a market-based solution where we purchase the quota from probably above fair market value from people that want to sell IFQ shares and that’ll allow us to migrate them into the charter sector to provide better access for the recreational fishermen, while still compensating the commercial sector.”

The RQE model is the first of its kind in the country and is designed to be driven by economics, not politics.

“When you look at the overall economics of it, the value of a fish in the water will migrate toward the user that can fully utilize the economic potential of that fish,” Richard Yamada, executive director of the nonprofit Recreational Quota Entity, said. “So we feel that if recreational anglers are willing to pay for additional access, and pay considerable more than they would for that halibut out of a supermarket, then that’s where the allocations are going to shift. But again it’s based upon the economics and improving the value of the fish in each fishery. It’s an experiment. It’s never been done in the nation yet.”

Although the funding authorization cleared a major hurdle, there are still specifics to work out. Previously the group developing the proposal modeled the feasibility using a fee ranging from $10 to $20 per stamp, but no fixed dollar amount has been set yet.

Barring an unexpected presidential veto, the RQE and NPFMC will work over the coming months to formulate the specifics of the program.

If the RQE is able to purchase enough quota, charter anglers could potentially catch and keep the daily limit for unguided anglers, which is currently two halibut of any size.

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