Angler fees will fund the new program starting in 2024
By Sabine Poux, Sitka Daily Sentinel
January 16, 2023
The halibut charter boat fleet in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska will be able to collectively buy quota shares from commercial fishermen under a provision in the federal omnibus budget bill passed at the end of December. The program would be funded by a fee charged for every angler aboard a halibut charter. As a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Andy Mezirow of Seward is a longtime supporter of the fee-based program.
The legislation was vetoed by President Trump in his final weeks in office, and had to go through the legislative process again. “This language that made it into the omnibus bill has been kicking around Washington, D.C., for like six years,” Mezirow said. He said he expects the new fee would range from $10 to $20 for each charter boat client. The fee will not apply to private anglers.
The halibut quota is divided between sport and commercial fishermen, and those slices get smaller in years of low abundance. For more than a decade, the Alaska charter fleet has pushed for a mechanism so that it could purchase commercial halibut quotas to ease increasingly restrictive limits on charter anglers. The effort resulted in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s creation of the recreational quota entity (RQE) in 2018, authorizing the purchase of quota shares but lacking a revenue stream to pay the costs.
The December legislation solves that problem by directing the U.S. Department of Commerce to adopt regulations “for the collection of fees from charter vessel operators who guide recreational anglers” in the Gulf and Southeast Alaska. The earliest the program could start would be 2024. “Regulations for Alaska’s guided sport fishery are increasingly tight, particularly for halibut in Southeast, and this program should make a big difference moving forward. It could very well serve as a model for resolving allocation frictions between fishing sectors across the country,” Forrest Braden, executive director of the SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization, based in Ketchikan, wrote in a thank you letter to Alaska Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola. All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation supported the provision. Charter operators like Mezirow say tight catch limits can make doing business difficult.
“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 of the benefit from the charter fleet buying halibut shares from commercial holders. Previously, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was considering a plan that would have transferred quota shares to the charter fleet without paying anything to the commercial fleet. 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 shares 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 legislation, which establishes a funding source from the charter industry. Fees could be collected from clients, through a conservation stamp-like program for charter anglers. The provision, which was part of a larger fisheries bill, was added to the omnibus spending package in the final days of the congressional session after the larger bill stalled out amid disputes over issues unrelated to the Alaska halibut catch.