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Federal Court Delays Decision on Temporary Restraining Order
TRO would increase the daily charter halibut bag limit in Southeast Alaska


June 05, 2008

(SitNews) - Following a hearing Wednesday morning, the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia deferred a ruling on whether to grant a temporary restraining order (TRO) that would increase the daily charter halibut bag limit in Southeast Alaska to two fish and would allow charter halibut harvest to exceed sustainable harvest levels recommended by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC).

The lawsuit was brought by the Ketchikan based Charter Halibut Task Force in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse a rule that took effect last Sunday, June 1, 2008. The Charter Halibut Task Force filed the lawsuit in US District Court for the District of Columbia seeking both a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary to block the one fish halibut charter bag limit in Area 2C (Southeast Alaska) and alleges violation of the Halibut Act and Administrative Procedures Act. 

Judge Rosemary Collyer on Wednesday granted both sides - the Charter Halibut Task Force and the Government (U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Marine Fisheries Service) more time to present their arguments and set a second hearing date for Tuesday, June 10, 2008.

Charter fishermen along the coast of Southeast Alaska united to file the lawsuit on May 29, 2008, against Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez over a rule that took effect June 1 changing the daily bag limit for anglers fishing from charter boats in Southeast Alaska from two halibut per day to one halibut per day.

Charter fishermen claim the one halibut daily limit will bring economic harm on the economy of Southeast Alaska coastal communities. Affidavits attached to the motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that was filed along with the complaint already show losses to the 11 plaintiffs of approximately half a million dollars. In addition, two charter operators from Southcentral Alaska filed affidavits in support of the lawsuit showing that anglers are already shifting from Southeast Alaska to Southcentral Alaska, where anglers can still catch two fish a day, in response to the one halibut a day rule. Canada also maintains the traditional two halibut daily limit.

The plaintiffs (Charter Halibut Task Force) argue, despite the lengthy public process and economic analysis done in recent years, that certain requirements of the Halibut Act and the Administrative Procedures Act have not been met. The U. S. Department of Justice is representing the Government with help from National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Juneau-based Halibut Coalition agrees with the Department of Justice that all requirements of both Acts have been met. Linda Behnken of the Halibut Coalition stressed the Halibut Coaliton is not a party to this suit. Although they are monitoring the situation out of concern for the sustainable management of the resource said Behnken.

"This lawsuit is without merit," said Jev Shelton, Halibut Coalition spokesperson. "It is a thinly-veiled attempt to use the justice system to block a management tool that is needed to conserve the halibut resource."

"The resource is limited and abundance is down," said Shelton. "The setline quota has been reduced by 43% over the past two years to allow Southeast stocks to rebuild. All commercial fishermen-setline and charter-must share in conserving the resource."

"Certainly, it would be neither environmentally responsible nor good for our businesses if the charter industry was seeking a two-fish limit when the resource was in danger. Regulatory officials repeatedly stated this is not the case. In fact, in our area, the biomass is projected to increase over the next 10 years," declared Scott Van Valin, owner of El Capitan Lodge and co-founder of the Charter Halibut Task Force in a prepared statement.

Since 1993, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been engaged in a public process to develop a halibut charter management plan that balances the needs of all who rely on the halibut fishery-harvesters, processors, consumers (who access the halibut resource through the setline fishery) and charter clients. In June 2007, after a lengthy analytical and public process, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) determined the one halibut daily bag limit would be necessary to constrain charter harvest to the 2008 Guideline Harvest Level .

In October 2008, the NPFMC will vote on a catch sharing plan that could include a mechanism for transfer of halibut between setline and charter sectors.

Both the setline and charter sectors in Southeast Alaska are experiencing economic difficulties due to decreased abundance of important fish stocks, increased fuel costs, and the downturn in the U.S. economy. In particular, several reports have been published about the impact on discretionary spending by Americans across the nation.

"Economically difficult times do not justify compromising resource health," says Shelton. "The resource comes first."

In the meantime, the one halibut daily bag limit and the reduced setline quotas are necessary to ensure biological limits are not exceeded. The Halibut Coalition supports conservative catch limits to protect the long-term health of the halibut stocks.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has spent 15 years developing a management plan for the charter sector through a very public process. Both the charter GHL and the pending management actions to restrict charter harvest to the GHL were developed by the NPFMC.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council places resource conservation above economic hardship; for that reason Alaska's marine fisheries are thriving while stocks crash in other parts of the world. Alaska fishermen are steeped in a culture of conservation; it is time the charter industry joined the ranks says the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The position of the Halibut Coalition is that the reduction is necessitated by reduced abundance of halibut in the Southeast area. The abundance of halibut in the area has dropped, as have catch rates in the stock assessment survey, the longline fishery, the charter fishery, the sport fishery, and the subsistence fishery. Because there is less halibut, all commercial sectors-longline and charter-have taken a quota reduction. In 2007, the Southeast longline quota was reduced by 20%; the charter Guideline Harvest Level (GHL) was not reduced-and the charter sector EXCEEDED its GHL by 36%.

In 2008, the longline sector's quota was cut by an additional 27%; and finally, the charter GHL, which is tied to abundance but in 15% stair steps, was reduced to protect stocks.

The Halibut Coalition says the reduced bag limit is a management action to hold charter harvest to their GHL during this time of reduced abundance. These actions are necessary to conserve the resource.

In an earlier prepared statement the Halibut Coalition said, "Yes, tourism is important to Southeast; yes some tourists enjoy catching a halibut as part of their Alaska experience, and under a one fish daily bag limit they still have this opportunity. But if the charter industry does not do its part to conserve the resource, there will be no halibut to catch in the future-and no one to blame but themselves."

The Southeast charter sector has exceeded its GHL every year since 2004 according to the Halibut Coalition. Every year the charter sector has objected to management actions that restrict their harvest. Since charter harvest is concentrated near towns, this over harvest has caused significant localized depletion of halibut and rockfish (taken as bycatch in the charter halibut fishery), making it increasingly difficult for resident subsistence and personal use fishermen to catch a fish to eat.

The Southeast charter clientele is 97% non-resident. The Southeast longline fleet is 83% Alaskan. The Halibut Coalition asks, "Is providing fish to tourists more important then taking care of the resource and supporting resident fishermen?"

The Juneau-based Halibut Coalition is urging charter operators to support management measures that constrain harvest to established catch limits and to participate in developing a catch sharing plan that adapts to both biological and market conditions with minimal need for expensive regulatory and court proceedings. The Halibut Coaliton is not a party to this suit.

Members of the Halibut Coaliton are: Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, Cordova District Fishermen, Deep Sea Fishermen's Union; Fishing Vessel Owners Association ; Halibut Association of North America; North Pacific Fisheries Association; Petersburg Vessel Owners Association; Sea Food Producers Cooperative; Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Association; United Cook Inlet Driftnetters Association ; United Fishermen's Marketing Association and United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association.

The Charter Halibut Task Force (CHTF) brought the suit against the Government (U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Marine Fisheries Service). The Charter Halibut Task Force (CHTF) represents charter fishing operators whose clients catch halibut off Alaska. The Charter Halibut Task Force is based in Ketchikan, Alaska.


On the Web:

Charter Halibut Task Force

Sources of News:

Halibut Coalition

Charter Halibut Task Force

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Ketchikan, Alaska