Halibut hopes

2016-05-25 09.41.14

A hefty halibut comes aboard a Saltwater Safaris charter in the Gulf of Alaska/Craig Medred photo

With the Alaska tourism industry – the state’s largest employer – headed for the rocks, charter boat operators hoping to make it through the summer have made a desperate plea to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to lift some restrictions on the sport halibut fishery.

The request comes with both charter operators and fishing guides reporting reservations for summer fishing trips being canceled in droves amid the panic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charter boat skipper Bob Candopoulos of Saltwater Safaris in Seward said he expects many businesses won’t make it through summer without help. Whether federal officials who control the fishery and have taken the lead in setting harvest levels will offer assistance is unclear.

Charter boat operators believe that if the federal government would allow a return to a limit of two halibut of any size, a lot more Alaska anglers would be inclined to invest in a charter. The two-fish limit was the state norm for decades and still is for anglers fishing from their own or rental boats.

But federal regulators earlier this decade bowed to pressure from commercial fishing interests who wanted the catch of the charters, their biggest competitors for harvest, reduced.

Seward’s Andy Mezirow said he thinks there is a chance the two-fish limit could make a temporary comeback.

Mezirow is a member of the commercially dominated North Pacific Fishery Management Council that sets regulations for the federal Fisheries Conservation Zone (FCZ) from three to 200-miles off the Alaska coast and controls halibut in state and federal waters under the terms of a coast-wide management treaty with Canada.

The Council has not been kind to charter operations in the past. A study completed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last year concluded that a 2013 decision to shift 1.9 million pounds of harvest quota from the charter fishery to the commercial fishery to “share the burden of conservation,” as the NMFS called it, cost the Alaska tourism economy approximately $85 million.

That was 16 to 37 times the $2.3 to $5.3 million that NOAA in 2015 reported 1,431 commercial fishermen holding individual fishing quota (IFQ) for Alaska stood to net from the quota shift.

Both the NMFS and the Council refused requests to study the economic impacts on tourism businesses before making the change. With so many small, mom-and-pop businesses involved, they said, the fishery was too complicated to study.

Mezirow, a Seward charter boat captain named to the council after that action, believes the 2019 NOAA study on the economic loss to Alaska helped to open some eyes to the value of Alaska rod and reel fisheries. He believes that offers hope for charter boat operators now.

Mezirow joined Candopolous and four fishing interest groups in drafting the regulatory petition sent to Chris Oliver, NMFS’s assistant administrator for the fisheries in the nation’s capital. Oliver has an Alaska connection.

He spent most of his career working for NMFS in Anchorage. He was a fishery biology and then deputy director for the Council before becoming its executive director in 2001. He held that position for 16 years before moving to the East headquarters of the NMFS in 2017.

COVID collapse

“We are experiencing significant charter cancellations and large reductions in client interest for the 2020 season from the cancellation of cruise ship sailings across the Gulf of Alaska as well as travel restrictions in Alaska and elsewhere on independent travelers,” the fishing interests said in a letter sent Oliver.

Holland America Line has already shut down its Alaska operations for the year. It is the biggest individual player in the Alaska tourism industry. 

Princess Tours, another major player, has shuttered its five wilderness lodges and eliminate land tours. Alaska Airlines, the air carrier with the most flights into the state, has cut its flight schedule by 80 percent through May, and when it might resume normal operations is unknown.

The charter season generally kicks off next month, and just getting Outside anglers to Alaska in May and June now appears a major problem as the fishing interests noted in their letter. It indicated they hoped to make up for some of the loss by encouraging more Alaskans to come fish.

“Unlike many charter fisheries you manage, we provide access to both resident and nonresident anglers who use our boats to fill their freezers with fish. Halibut is a consumptive fishery, where many of our clients fish for food more than sport,” they wrote.

“Charter operators, like all fishermen, are resilient and committed to surviving this downturn and want to continue to help families get access to food.”

By relaxing fishing restrictions as to size, closed days and seasonal bag limits, the letter said, the NMFS could help out both the charter operators and Alaskans who utilize charters to fish for food.

Because of a decline in the halibut stock in the North Pacific Ocean, the charters were facing more weekday fishing closures this year, and charter anglers were to be saddled with a seasonal limit on a top of a regulation already limiting them to one fish of any size and one small, so-called “chicken” halibut.

State fishing data indicates a lot more Alaskans used charters to fish when the regulations allowed a daily catch of two halibut of any size. A couple 30- to 50-pound flatfish can go a long way to filling a freezer.

With few non-residents expects to show this summer, the letter said, the charter harvest of halibut is sure to drop significantly, and thus there is no reason not to relax the regulations. Non-resident anglers comprise the bulk of charter anglers.

“We know that if the travel restrictions are not lifted in the next few months, we will have largely a fishery consisting of Alaska residents and some limited number of nonresident anglers who obeyed the 14-day quarantine,” they wrote. “Relaxing the bag and size limits for charter anglers while the travel ban is in place will allow Alaska residents and other anglers already in Alaska or traveling to Alaska in compliance with the travel restrictions access to the halibut resource and an opportunity to bring halibut home in these challenging times.”


They conceded they don’t expect Alaskan anglers to save them, but “any increased angler participation over what we are facing now would benefit charter operations.”

National tourism forecasts are grim. A consultant for the U.S. Travel Industry in late March forecast the economic damage would be seven-times greater than came with the travel restrictions imposed across the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

And that was before the pandemic exploded in New York City to ignite fears across the nation. Some Alaska communities are now trying to block outsiders from visiting at all.

The City of Valdez last week announced it didn’t want sport fishermen hanging around. It said it would allow them to use the city boat launch to get on the water only if they filled out a “Sport and Personal Use Fishing Agreement” that stipulates, among other things:

  • “No fisher may shelter or lodge in Valdez or the Valdez Harbor.
  • “Sport or personal fishers must drop boat or launch boat in an expedited manner upon arriving in Valdez and depart the Valdez Harbor as soon as practicable.
  • “If you should re-enter Valdez Harbor after completing fishing, sport and personal fishers shall leave Valdez immediately.”

Anglers were also told not to buy food or drinks in the Prince William Sound port city and fuel only in an emergency. Should anyone fail to cooperate, the form threatened to lock them down in a 14-day quarantine.

Whittier, the Prince William Sound port closest to the state’s largest city, has been somewhat more lenient. It says fishermen need to travel “directly from the tunnel to the vessel or location at which the fishing will occur,” but adds that “someone launching their vessel from the Whittier Harbor (is) allowed to go to the grocery store while in town.”

How long these rules will remain in place is unknown.

A model designed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicted the coronavirus pandemic was supposed to peak in Alaska on Saturday, but the state really hasn’t been following any model.

Both the number of infections and the number of deaths in the state are running unexpectedly below the modeled numbers. The state is now talking about relaxing restrictions on non-essential workers next week while worrying infections could go up as easily as down.

Meanwhile, the state is continuing to stress the need for social distancing to slow the spread of the disease, and it is hard to stay six feet away from other people all the time on most fishing boats.



17 replies »

  1. Craig,
    Bump this article, this is important, charters had there chance in the 90’s to do something, but balked at the last minute to make a change.History repeats, buy low, sell high.
    Now they will buy exceptionally higher to make ends meet
    I don’t follow the fairly easy to digest science based population dynamics anymore, but I’d bet without looking at recent survey data ,its fair to say that this will be very hard to swallow,economically.
    They had there chance at a seat at the table,and couldn’t make the leap.That was 20-25 yrs ago.
    I have a bias of course, but remember when all this potential sport IFQ stuff went down.They balked at the 11th hr.History is always more kind in hindsight.

  2. Rod Perry
    Along with Jason Barron, I am marveling that Steve Stine has all along been so in tune with us in such important ways. Nice to know I can link arms with you Steve on some issues close to the heart instead of silently responding, “Aw, Steve, go eat your kale!”

  3. Charter boats have been a part of the commercial halibut fishing fleet for some time now. Participation and quotas are a result of being managed by the Feds. Using Covid 19 as a means of raising your quota is beyond dishonest. Standing shoulder to shoulder on a small boat during a flu pandemic almost certainly has more to do with the lack of willing customers then the reduced bag limit.

    • Reading comprehension 101 – the Charter captains are asking to relax restrictions put in place to keep the overall harvest within the existing quota allocation. This is because fewer numbers of anglers fishing in 2020 means fewer fish harvested and not being able to harvest the fish allocated to the charter industry.

      Nowhere does it say the charter captains are wanting to increase the allocation for this year. With the big reduction in non resident anglers, removing restrictions makes sense to encourage harvest and fishing opportunity for residents. With a 2 fish per day no size limit, the charter sector will still not come close to harvesting its allocation this year.

      • More for next year. Low halibut prices to longliners may also cause some of their quota to remain in the water this year, too. No need to upend an already complex management strategy. As you say, the fish will be there next year.

  4. “Both the number of infections and the number of deaths in the state are running unexpectedly below the modeled numbers. The state is now talking about relaxing restrictions on non-essential workers next week while worrying infections could go up as easily as down.”

    “Infections going up” is largely irrelevant, as long as the tiny percentage of people at known risk of actual _harm_ from infection continue to hard isolate and the 99% at essentially zero risk of permanent health consequences, who are not living with a statistically vulnerable person, continue to practice distancing and hygiene and spreading that needed herd immunity. Those with lower mental risk tolerance should be free to continue to practice stricter measures, while those who feel the math doesn’t support such actions should likewise be free to act accordingly.

  5. I don’t know what the stats are for resident owned and operated commercial charter boats, but from my experience it has been about 50-50, maybe 60-40 nonresident to resident…I would guess it is actually a higher nonresident number but I don’t know, maybe I will dig around the internets if I get a chance later.

    Anyways if the nonresident owner operators stay away leaving the resident owner operators to scratch out a few paying resident customers then this could make some sense. Of course not catching as many halibut this year will help in future years. The biggest problem with halibut stock depletion isn’t from the commercial longliners, the commercial charter fleet, or the sports fishing group but from the bycatch fleet that kills millions of pounds of halibut, salmon, and sablefish every year. If bycatch was reigned in by even 50% the 2 fish limit could be restored.

  6. Only the strong(or unfortunately the connected) will survive.
    The problem is leverage,globally everything is debt dependent.And the virus has exposed that in spades.
    The lessons of The Great Depression have been forgotten.To many people and businesses churning just to stay inplace.
    Put another way,living a lifestyle instead of focusing on making a living.
    Good time to reflect on what could be learned by this experience

  7. Economic and political suicide for him not to lift 14 day quarantine very soon. Especially after reading a synopsis of the Stanford University study on Santa Clara County and C19 infection rates. Perhaps an IT savy person could link it here. Executive summary- We have unwittingly chosen a path and pain not needed. The opinion pieces by Berenson, Katz and Freidman were by far the most accurate. Hindsight as usual 20/20. The question now is how to break the bureaucratic inertia.

    • Bob,
      Even worse than “bureaucratic inertia”…what we are seeing is that Governors accross the country (both Democrats & Republicans) are willing to toss our civil liberties out the door every time some “plannedemic” gets handed down from the WHO to the CDC?
      These CDC fear campaigns have been wrong every time since the Swine Flu in 1976?
      We have seen this in West Nile Virus, SARs, Ebola, Zika…the list goes on and on.
      Each round of “novel virus” brings a new development for vaccine and billions of profit to Merck and Big Pharma.
      How long will it take till the politicians understand that our economy cannot afford to “keep hitting the brakes”?

  8. Who’s going to come to alaska to fish or hunt if you have to quarantine for two weeks first anyway.

    • Chris, according to the Governor, thousands of non resident Bristol Bay permit holders and their crews will be doing just that: quarantining themselves for two weeks before fishing. And they appear to be willing to do it. That is as of today, however. Dunleavy is anxious to open up the economy in Alaska. So I would not be surprised to see the quarantine lifted sometime in May. This rush to open things up is pretty risky imo. I hope he knows what he’s doing.

      • I really doubt these BB fishing people will all quarantine since the majority of them crash on a boat or sleep in a connex when not working the nets.
        Where will everyone sleep for two weeks if they do not have housing?
        Who will bring thousands of fishermen their food so they do not have to go out in society?
        What about laundry or other supplies needed for the season?

        What we are seeing is nothing short of an authoritarian redesign of our complete society from top down politicians who have said they favor less government?
        When the dust settles and Americans see that coronavirus was no more dangerous than the common flu they will be pissed as multi generation businesses are lost around the country.
        Make no mistake we are witnessing the largest transfer of wealth in modern history.
        Trillions of government bailouts going to corporations like big oil, pharma and airlines while mom & pop businesses fight for a chance at $10,000 loans.

      • Steve S, well, they are criminals, I’ll give you that.. Democrats orchestrated a coup on a sitting president. They should be tried and lined against a wall.
        “Newly declassified documents spotlight the role of John Kerry’s State Department in fueling the FBI’s dubious Russia collusion probe, showing it was the State Department that provided “information” leading to the controversial surveillance of Carter Page.”

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