Heidi Zemach for SCN-
The charter boat fishing fleet adds great value to Seward’s economy, said Crackerjack Charters captain Andy Mezirow. Anglers fill up local hotels and campgrounds, dine at local restaurants, and shop at the stores. Mezirow, an instructor at AVTEC Maritime Training Center, and a longtime representative on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council Advisory Panel, spoke recently at a Seward Chamber of Commerce luncheon forum about the new 2014 halibut regulations for the charter fleet, and how they could affect business.
The good news for Seward’s tourist-season, which has just begun, is that salmon returns look bountiful going into the summer, he said. But due to severe declines in the halibut population in Alaska, national fishery managers are finally holding Alaska’s charter operators to harvest allocations tied to yearly abundance -as they have for the commercial fishing fleets for years.
These restrictions may be unpleasant for charter operators, but they are necessary for the good of the resource, he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2014 regulations for charter halibut anglers in Southeast Alaska, now restrict anglers to just one fish per day. But here in Area 3A (South-central Alaska), anglers can still catch and retain two fish per day. They may keep one fish of any size, plus another fish that is less than or equal to 29 inches in length, which should weigh about 8 pounds once filleted. And if halibut are filleted at sea, anglers are required to retain the carcass of the second fish until landing so that enforcement officers can verify compliance with the maximum size limit.
Under the new regs, each charter vessel may only take one trip per day during which anglers retain halibut, an added economic burden for area 3A charter operators.
The prospect of only allowing customers to retain two halibut of a specific size, or possibly only one in years of lower abundance, will be a “difficult sell” for charter operators, Mezirow said. They will have to try to convince their clients, as he does, that bringing home 80-pounds of halibut, plus delicious fillets of other fish, such as ling cod and red snapper is equally wonderful to catching lots of halibut, or a huge one, and that conservation is the right thing for the environment.
Unfortunately, the dream that really attracts anglers to fish Alaska in the first place is the possibility that they will land that giant 250 or 300 pound halibut.
“The thought of catching a really huge one is what draws a lot of people to Seward,” said Mezirow. “It’s all about opportunity and having something amazing happen.” But it doesn’t often happen anymore. The average size of halibut caught last year weighed just 12.8 pounds, and their overall size has been steadily declining for reasons yet unknown. The fish are just growing slower.
To help create sustainability in their business over the long term, Seward captains Mezirow and Steve Zernia (Saltwater Fishing Charters) and Daniel Donich from Homer have been working out the details of a market-based catch-share plan that would allow charter operators to lease quota from the commercial sector in years of low halibut abundance, thus enabling their clients to continue to retain two fish. It would be good for charter boats as well as the commercial fleet, he said.
“This is our attempt to figure out a happy ending for charter boats,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s something to come to Seward to fish for.”
They also have been working on a grant-funded “Every Halibut Counts” program to educate the charter fleet on how to do a better job handling halibut mortality, putting in place techniques to have clients release their unwanted halibut more gently. The charter fleet is responsible for 10-20 thousand fish dying by catch and release, Mezirow said.
“It’s held against us. We can lower that number by being more careful.”
They hope to roll out the new program next month.
Also new this year is a Guided Angler Fish (GAF) program available allowing participating charter vessel operators to offer their clients the chance to harvest up to two fish of any size per day. It comes with its own set of special regulations.
Another problem is the growth in charter operators. This summer four large new charter boats joined the fleet at Seward Boat Harbor and will be plying the waters of Resurrection Bay, competing for fishing opportunities. The more vessels taking part, the smaller each one’s individual share will be, Mezirow said. Then again, not all of the vessels in the boat harbor are in use. Some owners are simply taking advantage of the tax breaks that can be claimed by having them there.
The regulations will finally reduce the amount of conflict that the issue has created in Alaskan communities with both charter and commercial fishing fleets, Mezirow said. That hasn’t been as much a problem in Seward, as it has been in Homer and Southeast where entire communities and friendships have been torn apart.
Although the new regulations may help protect the resource, they do nothing to minimize the larger issue of largely unregulated trawler bycatch mortality and the large-scale waste of flatfish. “They’re probably harvesting more halibut bycatch now than the entire commercial harvest,” said Mezirow. Yet their bycatch levels don’t change, regardless of halibut population levels. And while observers monitor sportfish bycatch quite closely, the large trawlers are allowed to operate mostly on the honor system.