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Federal regulations threaten Alaska's halibut skippers

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By federal order, hundreds of Alaska halibut charter businesses will be forced to close their doors Feb. 1. Most of them are small, mom-and-pop operations.

Exactly how many will fall victim to a U.S. Department of Commerce decision to impose limited entry on halibut charters, no one can say. What the consequences will be for state tourism in places dependent on small, sport-fishing businesses is not clear. Whether anglers will end up paying significantly more to go halibut fishing because of the change is unknown, although almost everyone in the charter business thinks the plan will lead to fee increases.

Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Commerce agency implementing what it calls the "Charter Halibut Limited Access Program," question the latter conclusion, but admit they can't predict what will happen.

Skippers who can establish a history in the halibut fishery dating back to 2004 get free permits from NMFS. Most of them get permits that are saleable.

Skippers who don't qualify for permits are out of business unless they buy permits from others. The going price for permits at the moment is $5,000 per angler and up. The speculation that charter rates are heading higher is tied to the sale of these permits.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game remain largely silent about the plan. A receptionist at the agency's Homer office said she'd been told specifically not to say anything about it because it's a federal scheme. Some legislators have spoken out in protest, but they say no one is listening. Rep. Mark Neuman, a Willow Republican, said that when he pestered the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's legislative liaison about fisheries issues last session she finally told him, "My boss says I don't need to talk to you."

Efforts to get Republican Gov. Sean Parnell to pay attention to sport fishery issues didn't go much better, Neuman added. Parnell listened politely; said, "yup, yup, yup" and then did nothing. "You can't get anything out of him," Neuman said.

It is unclear, too, as to what the state might do. A 50-page outline of the NMFS program printed in the Federal Register dismisses potential state concerns as meaningless: "This rule is being implemented under the authority of the Halibut Act, not the Alaska Constitution. Legislative resolutions by the Alaska Legislature are not legally binding on this action."

Still, the NMFS regulations do appear to be the first move by the federal government to dictate how state residents can fish in state and coastal U.S. waters. In the marine waters of other states, the NMFS sets catch limits for some species but leaves it up to the states to determine how anglers gain access to fisheries -- whether by charter taxi or private boat.

State officials in recent years have aggressively attacked the expansion of federal powers on many fronts in the 49th state, but they have not complained about the federal plan for dictating how halibut sport fishing will be conducted. Neuman blames commercial fishing interests. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, a former sport fishing guide, tends to agree.

"It does not seem to me that sport halibut takes more their fair share," he said. "It seems like before (the feds) take out a sledge hammer on the charter industry, they should try a ball-peen hammer."

Neuman doesn't think the feds care what kind of hammer is used, and he's equally convinced they're not going to give their halibut plan a second thought unless the Parnell administration speaks up loudly and strongly.

Nobody really expects that to happen.

Who's watching out for sport fishing?

Nearly a year ago, charter industry lobbyist Donna Bondioli sent an e-mail to an Alaska Dispatch reporter asking for suggestions on how to make contact with Parnell. ...

Read the entire story at Alaska Dispatch