This paper was written as part of the 2002 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.
Catching the Fish and Eating Them Too—Halibut: a Pressured Species
Some say planning for the future will get the human race nowhere; we disagree. In the following, you will read our input, thoughts and opinions concerning the preservation of Central Cook Inlet's halibut resource.
The area in focus is the waters of the Cook Inlet offshore the small town of Ninilchik, Alaska. The species under pressure we have chosen to spotlight is the Pacific Halibut. Facts gathered have been borrowed from both local and non-local sources. All opinion is expressed with the sincerity of young adults who are long-time residents of this community and would like to see its halibut resource better managed and protected for the next generation to enjoy.
We will continue to support an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system but understand the fastest way to preserve the halibut species is with the implementation of a plan constructed by the people who know the politics, economics and feelings of their community inside-out and have a deep understanding of the resource. We will enact a Local Area Management Plan (LAMP), simple as possible to promote speedy implementation, to keep the halibut as a resource from devastating harm until an Individual Fishing Quota system is prepared and put into action.
Pacific halibut are the largest flatfish in the world with several documented specimens weighing over five hundred pounds (two hundred and twenty-seven kilograms). Some of these fish measured eight feet (two and a half meters) in length and were well into their third decade of life. The oldest halibut on record is a fifty-five year old male, while the oldest female is forty-two years old. (http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/fish/halibut.htm)
Halibut are rather strange looking fish that are more elongated than most flatfish. They have both eyes on their upper side and exhibit countershading. The top side of the fish is dark and speckled in order to blend in to the ocean's floor while the underside is lighter, appearing more like the sky from below. Burrowing themselves under the sand and rocks, their eyes just above the surface scan for prey or predator. (http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/fish/halibut.htm)
Spawning takes place during the winter months with the peak of activity occurring between December and February. Most spawning takes place off the edge of the continental shelf, in waters almost three hundred fathoms deep. Both male and female fish reach sexual maturity at eight years of age. A female can lay up to four million eggs annually, depending on her age and weight. After only fifteen days of incubation, the eggs hatch and the young larvae float for up to six months and can travel several hundred miles due to the Pacific Ocean's currents. During this free-floating stage, a young halibut undergoes many changes. The left eye migrates to the right side of the fish, attaining the look of an adult. During this time, the young halibut will rise to the surface and be carried by prevailing currents to shallower waters. It is in these shallower waters that the halibut begins its life as a bottom dweller. (http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/fish/halibut.htm)
Until a halibut reaches about ten years of age, it is highly migratory and generally moves in a clockwise direction east to south throughout the Gulf of Alaska. Older fish often use both shallow and deep waters over their annual cycle, however they usually have much smaller 'home ranges' than the younger and more migratory fish. (http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/fish/halibut.htm)
The recreational halibut fishery has become a vital link to the economy of south central Alaska. Participation in recreational marine fisheries has grown steadily over the last few decades due to the state's population and increased tourism. This is particularly obvious in communities on the lower Kenai Peninsula such as Ninilchik. An example of this growth is the increase of halibut harvested in Central Cook Inlet from 1980 to 2000. In 1980 approximately 8,177 halibut were harvested while in 2000, nearly 94,000 fish were taken. If the industry continues to grow at the current rate, by 2010, a projected 120,000 fish, at least, will be taken from the inlet. (Evers, pers. comm.)
The Central Cook Inlet area charter fisherman and their clientele alone harvested 48,569 fish in 2000. With just under a thousand residents, this proves how important the halibut are to the Cook Inlet and Ninilchik's economy. Not only do the charter owners make their living, but local businesses also thrive off of the tourists coming to fish. Several of these businesses are bed and breakfasts, restaurants and small grocery stores. If we do not more appropriately manage this precious gold mine, our community will pay heavily when the source is depleted. Figure 1 shows the number of halibut harvested recreationally in Central Cook Inlet. There is an apparent increase in the number of halibut harvested from when the first recorded date to the last. It is absolutely necessary that this rapid increase be slowed in order to preserve the halibut industry. (Evers, pers. comm.)
To fight the depletion of the halibut species as a resource, the North Pacific Management Council has proposed to put into action the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system for charter fisherman. This system consists of allotting each charter operation a quota based on how many fish they have caught in the past. By enforcing the IFQ system, each skipper will only be allowed to take a limited number of fish. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
Commercial halibut fishermen have been fishing under an IFQ system since 1995. Both positive and negative opinions have been voiced within the industry. Some fishermen feel as if they have been cheated out of their 'fair share' of the stocks because they did not fish the IFQ qualifying years. Others feel that the system had allocated the fish fairly—there just isn't any way that a fisherman can make a living on such a small share. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
All federal restricted access programs, such as the IFQ system, must have a start date and eligibility criteria to determine who will receive allocation and in what amount. The biggest hurdle in Alaska has been about how allocations of quota poundage were made to boat owners, skippers and others who had been in the commercial fishery for years. Some felt they were unjustly excluded from their occupation while other participants received a quota share but filed suit claiming that it was unjustifiably small. The participants were critical because the total landings between 1988 and 1990 determined the quota share. Persons who had landings during this period were allotted shares according to the highest catches for any of the five years between 1984 and 1990, making it impossible for a fisherman to receive shares if he hadn't fished 1988, 1989 or 1990. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
Recently, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to consider imposing the IFQ system on Alaska's charter fisherman. After two days of public testimony and the review of hundreds of written comments, the council approved an Individual Fishing Quota program for the halibut charter fleet in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska on April 14, 2001. This decision culminated over eight years of debate and over eight thousand comments on managing the charter halibut fishery. The IFQ program would replace the Guideline Harvest Level (GHL) program approved by the council in February of 2000, and currently under Secretarial review. The charter IFQ system could be implemented as soon as 2003 if the Secretary of Commerce chooses to adopt it. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
The primary purpose of the IFQ system is to promote conservation of the species while continuing to provide the optimum yield and reduce over-capitalization of the resource. The system also strives to promote the efficient use of the fishery and allocate resources fairly. The best scientific data available today is used to generate the figures and to predict the potential of the program. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
The system consists of allotting a set number of fish per season to each boat owner based on the number of fish that they caught in recent years. The council will allot fish to each operation if they turned in a valid logbook to Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1998 or 1999, and 2000. The council will then set the skipper's IFQ at seventy percent of the his or her average catch in 1998 and 1999. The IFQ will then increase by ten percent for each year of the last three years that the skipper has fished. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
The IFQ system has many positive points. The action does not restrict non-charter recreational or subsistence anglers. It only affects charter operators. The quota will be issued to the owner of the business or a skipper who leased a boat. The IFQ program will be issued in number of fish, not poundage, as compared to the commercial fleet system, to allow current fishing practices to continue. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
On the other hand, the system also has drawbacks. The most serious being the time it will take to execute. Projected running time is three years minimum and on top of getting it in place, the program will require a one-year delay between the issuance of quota shares and fishing under the IFQ program. This is necessary to get all the kinks worked out, but will several more year of heavy hitting on the fish be too much? (Chihuly, pers. comm.)
The 'common use' clause of the Alaska constitution prevents the state legislature from creating any privileged class of citizens, therefore preventing the state from creating limited entry programs. The reason we currently have limited entry commercial fisheries is because years ago the voters of the state approved a statewide referendum that exempted commercial fisheries from this section of the constitution. In order to have limited entry charter fisheries in Alaska, the voters would have to approve, by a 2/3 majority, an amendment to the constitution that would exempt charters. (Meyers, pers. comm.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council can institute a limited entry program (such as the Individual Fishing Quota) or moratorium for charter boats but only specifically for halibut. One reason they haven't already done so as part of the recent issues relating to controlling charter harvest, is that they have been unable to identify criteria with which to decide who is IN and who is OUT. (Meyers, pers. comm.)
For this reason, it has taken over ten years for a proposal for an IFQ system to work its way this far through the political agenda. It will likely be three to five years before an IFQ system is ready to go into effect. As you can see, it would not be intelligent to start the political process all over again. We have designed a Local Area Management Plan (LAMP) for the Cook Inlet because we think that we can have it in place and acting as the governing force in less than two years. We will continue to support an IFQ system but understand that the choice way to preserve the halibut species is with the implementation of a plan constructed by the people who know the politics, economics and feelings of their community inside-out and have a deep understanding of the resource. We will enact a LAMP, simple as possible to promote speedy implementation, to keep halibut as a resource from devastating harm until an IFQ system is prepared and put into action. (Meyers, pers. comm.)
Local Area Management Plan
The Local Area Management Plan (LAMP) that we have designed is modeled after one currently in place in Sitka Sound. The Sitka Sound LAMP implements measures to reduce competition for halibut in Sitka Sound and restricts commercial fishing boats and charter boats from halibut fishing in the Sound. This allows personal use fisherman greater opportunity to catch halibut in the waters near Sitka and contributes to the health of the halibut as a resource. (http://www.afsc.noaa.gov)
The Sitka Sound LAMP includes regulations concerning who can fish, where they can fish, how many fish can be taken and at what times of the year. We have used some of the information from this LAMP and its implementations to preserve and maintain the halibut at a resource within the Central Cook Inlet. We have developed other thoughts and suggestions concerning the halibut and how local fishermen and biologists can most efficiently manage them. (http://www.afsc.noaa.gov)
Realizing the multi-species nature of the affected fisheries and the potential impact to state-managed fisheries, we agree to assume primary responsibility in developing the LAMP in the Cook Inlet. Those parts of the plan that addresses halibut or any other species covered by one of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council's fishery management plans in federal waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone (3-200 miles offshore) will be forwarded to the Council for their review before we propose any type of alteration to the current arrangement. (http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm)
We will use the Alaska Board of Fisheries regular meeting cycle to consider LAMP proposals. Under this timeline, a Cook Inlet LAMP will be considered during the 2001/2002 cycle. (http://www.state.ak.us/adfg/adfghome.htm)
Given the allocative nature of LAMPs, the Board will require local users to gather information and opinions. A task force will be created with equal representation from all user groups. The task force, along with ourselves, will have the primary objective of plan development with the suggested timeline of six months. We, as a group, will then submit our LAMP proposal to the Alaska Board of Fish. We will be prepared to consider any request concerning Cook Inlet's LAMP made by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. (http://www.state.ak.us/adfg/adfghome.htm)
Our LAMP is designed specifically for the Cook Inlet and the preservation of the halibut, both transient and residential, within its waters. The LAMP encompasses the halibut fishery in all aspects of the topic including catch and possession limits, area closures, effort limitation, subsistence and commercial fishermen, seasons and overall boundaries of the plan.
The LAMP will safeguard the Central Cook Inlet's halibut resource while continuing to promote socio-economic growth in small, tourism-driven Ninilchik. We have formed a strong goal statement to justify our LAMP and intend to follow through with a strong solution. We will do everything in our power to protect and preserve the Central Cook Inlet's halibut fishery while continuing to sustain and promote economic growth in Ninilchik.
The first and certainly the most important step in the development of a Cook Inlet LAMP is the preservation of the halibut species, the local economy and the sport fishery. In order to preserve, charter fisherman will fish under new LAMP regulations while commercial fisherman will be required to fish outside the LAMP boundaries. Charter and sports fisherman will be heavily monitored and managed because they are the primary entity using the fishery.
As you can see in Figure 2, our LAMP will cover the width of the Central Cook Inlet from the point 60°14' north latitude, 152°24' west longitudes to the north and 59°45' north latitude, 151°30' west longitude to the south.
The state of Alaska has historically been good at managing resources, but we feel that the harvest level is a serious issue and needs to be addressed immediately.
The harvest levels for charter and sport fisherman have been steadily increasing over the last decade with the recent influx of charter operations taking a large percentage of the fish in the area we will encompass with a LAMP. With the use of LAMP management, harvest levels would be limited, which would keep fisherman from dipping below sustainable levels.
Halibut in the Central Cook Inlet reproduce at a fairly constant rate. Of the young halibut produced, only a certain amount will reach maturity. As long as the harvest level remains below the rate of mortality, halibut stocks will remain healthy, thus further promoting the ability for the resource to maintain a sustainable level.
Proposed LAMP Regulations
There are several different ways that we could manage the resource but with each remedy, different groups are affected. We could limit the number of fish taken, boats that go out, boat size, fish size, number of people per boat, number of trips per day, shorten the season, or finally, restrict charter operators to four days a week. With each and every counteracting measure, we must consider the socio-economic effect on the livelihood of individuals near and within the LAMP.
Restricting the number of fish each angler can take will really aid the Central Cook Inlet halibut stock. Currently, each client on board a charter vessel is allowed to retain two fish per day. Easily, we could reduce this to one which would result in fifty percent less fish taken by the charter fleet. Overall, this is a decent solution but it would continue to advocate the taking of the larger fish, which will have negative repercussions on the industry as a whole since it is these large fish who are the primary reproducers.
An answer that wouldn't quite have as much of a positive impact on the stocks but one that we project would be taken much more warmly would be to allow a person to continue to take two fish per day but only until they reach a yearly twelve fish limit. This would continue to promote the symbiotic relationship of the local tourism industry and charter businesses but would crack down on those who claim the astronomical number of halibut in their freezer is simply a privilege of the subsistence user. Anyone who claims that twelve average-sized fish is not enough to supplement his yearly diet is either unwise in the ways of preparing fish or a poor angler.
If an angler can only keep one fish, he or she is likely to continue to catch and release until he or she feels they have caught a fish that capitalizes on their Alaskan fishing experience. A one hundred pound female can produce up to four million eggs annually while a larger fish can produce even more. Removing these denizen of the deep from reproduction is only promoting the faster decline of the stock, therefore, the secret to good management may lie within the size of the fish, not how many can be taken.
Although it would be quite a challenge to enforce, the Central Cook Inlet LAMP would benefit from a regulation stating that all fish over a set weight must be released. An angler would know, or be able to estimate, the weight of his fish while it is still in the water by looking at figure three.
Most of the Central Cook Inlet halibut over sixty pounds are females so we would set the LAMP halibut weight limit at seventy pounds. Fish around fifty inches should not be kept.
This solution has several drawbacks. How is an angler going to predict the length of his fish accurately? What if the fish that he thought was 52 inches long turns out to be 54 inches long? This would be quite an effective management tool if we could keep everyone honest but what about the skippers who clean their fish on board? There really is not any way to enforce this regulation.
Halibut derbies where prize money is based on fish size are about to become extremely rare. Instead of large fish derbies, we propose that fish will be tagged with prize money going to the angler that catches a tagged fish instead of the biggest fish or have a target weight anglers are fishing for. This way, anglers are fishing for the smaller fish that don't have as much impact on the halibut reserve. Who says the younger, smaller fish aren't just a little tastier anyway? We understand this isn't going to go over well. Everyone wants to catch one of the Cook Inlet's famous 'barn-door' halibut—even if just for the fight and the bragging rights, but is it really worth it? No, in the local derbies, tagged fish will be worth more than those big mamas. When local biologists are doing their springtime studies on the fish in the LAMP area, we will simply have them tag several fish for this purpose. There is no reason to promote the fishing of the 'big ones.'
Limiting the number of boats that could fish under one Alaska business license would cut the number of boats going out of Deep Creek by nearly forty percent. By doing this, the harvest level would in turn be forty percent lower. If we went with this option in our LAMP, several of the larger charter businesses would be forced to either sell all but one of their boats or create a second, third or fourth business under which to run their second, third or fourth boats. As you can see, this is not a smart option because even if the business owner did the more candid thing and sold all but one boat, the number of charter boat owners would increase and fish harvest levels would continue to rise.
A proven method for limiting the number of fish caught is by limiting the size of boat that a charter skipper can run. This way, a skipper can only take four, for example, people out on a twenty-foot boat; two less than they currently take out on twenty-eight foot-plus boats. This has long been a management tool in the Bristol Bay commercial fishery and has proven effective. If the number of fisherman is decreased by one third then the number of fish landed will also decrease. When the State Park Service began allowing the "tractor launch" to launch boats, charter operators quickly converted their operations to larger boats since the tractors could accommodate them. This single event could possibly have doubled the amount of anglers within this study area in a very short period of time. Prior to the availability of a safe launching system, smaller vessel size was nearly automatically dictated by the operator's ability to launch a boat either at high tide in the mouth of Ninilchik River or in the surf itself. Marine Services Boat Launching at Deep Creek has had a direct correlation to the number of halibut taken in the last ten years. This proves that limiting vessel size would decrease the amount of fish landed.
Limiting the size of charter vessels may not be a very fair or resourceful option. Business owners would have to either sell or remodel each or their boats so that they fit the LAMP's required criteria, which very well could result in being forced out of business because of lack of funds. If we did choose to go with this option, strict regulations on the length and width requirements of vessels would need to be laid out immediately so that owners had time to comply. We would set a date, giving owners an appropriate amount of time, and enforce the regulations authoritatively.
Instead of allowing charter boats to go out twice a day as they currently are allowed to if they choose and the tides concur, we could restrict them to one fishing trip per day. This would be a pretty simple management tool because we could simply check a name off of a list as they went out—making it impossible for them to make a second trip within a twenty-four hour period. This duty would be assigned to employees at Marine Services Boat Launching because it is next to impossible for boats to go out anywhere else.
Of course, those who have traditionally made two trips per day would not take this strategy warmly. The charter owner would now be allowed to launch only once a day, which will have a negative effect on his profits. This also would have a negative effect on businesses in Ninilchik such as boat launches and fuel stations.
Only about twenty-five percent of our LAMP area's charter fishermen choose to go out more then once a day so is this really an optimal solution? Is it going to have that much of an effect on the resource? No, there is a better way to manage the resources.
If we don't do something now, there may not be a halibut fishery in ten years, not to mention for the next generation. A very popular solution with us is to either shorten the season or only allow charter fishermen to fish specific days of the week. Either of these solutions would be relatively easy to accomplish.
If we decided to include in our LAMP that charter fishermen can fish only the months of June and July, we suspect we would face intense opposition. Charter operators wouldn't be fishing as much within the LAMP boundaries but, as recent years have proven, a trend to fish Resurrection Bay for silvers from mid to late August has become increasingly popular. Allowing charter boats to run within the LAMP only in June and July would not have as much effect on business profits as limiting boat size or trips that can be made per day, for example, so this would be the more all-around economical solution. If we chose to enforce this regulation, the halibut would benefit greatly by being fished for only about two-thirds of the summer season.
The halibut would also benefit to about the same maximum by, instead of only allowing fish to be taken in June and July, allowing fish to be taken only particular days of the week. For example, halibut may be fished from a charter boat on every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the summer season. This would lower the pressure on the fish and facilitate stock growth. This option would also facilitate the need of local users to catch subsistence fish for their families.
Currently, commercial salmon fishermen in the Cook Inlet are only allowed to fish two days per week throughout the summer season so limiting the charter fishermen in the same type of mean will not be any big shock. Fishing only Mondays and Thursdays has been a regulation for the set netters for several years and has been a proven management tool, though if we did include this statute, we would have to make an exception for foul-weather days.
A blow-off, or foul-weather day is any day on which the water is too rough to fish. Within the regulation declaring that charter boats can only fish four days a week, we will say that exceptions are to be made so that there are four guaranteed fishing days per week. This way, the option to fish five days is open but if the weather is unfavorable on Sunday and Monday, charter operators will have the opportunity to 'make up' one of their missed days.
There is the issue of skippers who have traditionally only launched once a day making two trips on two of their fishing days and continuing to take fish at the current rate. The general consensus is that this will not be a problem. There is a reason fishermen choose not to fish as aggressively as possible, this usually being an off-season job.
Everyone must understand that with the imposing of this LAMP, we are not trying to exclude anyone from the use of the halibut as a source of revenue. We understand that each and every person in our community is important and there will be those far from our tiny town who will be affected by new fishing regulations in our region. The livelihood of local charter fisherman is an important factor in Ninilchik's economic growth and development and everyone must understand that we are trying to protect the trade, not destroy it. In our plan to keep the halibut stock healthy, we will err on the side of conservation, knowing that it can always be corrected later.
Having exhausted all of the respectable options for managing the sport halibut fishery within the Central Cook Inlet LAMP, we have come to the conclusion the most economically sound solution is to allow charter boats to fish only five days a week and allow anglers, either subsistence or recreational, to continue to keep two fish per day—until they have reached a twelve fish limit.
Once again, consenting to charter boats fishing Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday would lower the pressure on stocks while only reducing financial gain by members of the charter industry slightly.
Tourists visiting our town will have the opportunity on days when the charter fleet is in to explore Ninilchik and visit many of our small gift shops and restaurants, thus generating revenue to compensate for the fleet's two-day required rest period. We have chosen to eliminate Tuesday and Wednesday and not Friday and Saturday, for example, as fishing days because we felt that it would not be fair to forbid fishing on the weekend and those days surrounding it. Also, we could align Ninilchik's weekly fishing schedule with that of the Kenai River so that anglers would have the option of fishing in a different type of setting two days a week.
Continuing to permit anglers two fish per day until a twelve fish yearly limit has been reached is a sound solution because it will have a limited management effect on the charter fleet while allocating only a reasonable number of fish to the subsistence user.
Our LAMP has been thoroughly thought out reflects an effort to reach a high degree of consensus with the users of the halibut species in the area covered by our plan. During development, appropriate agency staff was contacted and provided guidance and legal limitations so that our LAMP proposal has a much higher likelihood of not facing difficulties in the review process.
We continue to the IFQ system as a management tool in the Central Cook Inlet but realize the time frame for the instatement of the IFQ system is not realistic when considering the sustaining of the resource. Our LAMP will be put in place until the conflicts of the IFQ system have been agreed upon.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game- http://www.state.ak.us/adfg/adfghome.htm 10/21/01, http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/fish/halibut.htm 12/14/01, Alaska Department of Fish and Game P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, Alaska 99802-5526. (907) 465-4100
Alaska Sea Grant College Program halibut facts pamphlet- University of Alaska, Fairbanks, P.O. Box 755040, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775
Chihuly, Mike- local charter operator; P.O. Box 39294, Ninilchik, Alaska 99639. 567-3374
Evers, Tim- President, Ninilchik Charter Association; 137 Sterling Hwy, Ninilchik, Alaska 99639. 567-3518
International Pacific Halibut Commission- http://www.iphc.washington.edu 10/2/01 P.O. Box 95009, Seattle, WA 98145-2009
Meyers, Scott, Fish and Game, 3298 Douglas Dr., Homer, Alaska 99603. 907-235-8171
National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration- http://www.afsc.noaa.gov 11/8/01, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sand Point Way N.E., Bin C15700, Building 4, Seattle, Washington 98115-0070. 206-526-4000
North Pacific Fisheries Management Council-http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/default.htm 10/21/01, 605 West 4th, Suite 306, Anchorage, Alaska 99501-2252. (907) 271-2809
Tillion, Clem- local fisherman; Box 6409 Halibut Cove, AK 99603. 296-2207