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.
“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.
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.