A declining Pacific halibut stock means more restrictions for charter companies.
NOAA Fisheries released both the Pacific halibut catch limits and the charter management measures this week, just days before the season opener on March 24. Numbers are down – roughly 9 percent overall from last year.
There are some days where charter companies can’t fish halibut by regulation. And those days vary year to year.
“We never know whether it’s gonna be three days, four days, whether they’re gonna do all of ‘em.” Michael Ensley, with Happy Hooker Charters, said.
Ensley says businesses often learn about the restrictions long after the customers book their trips.
“I’ve gotta call these people and let them know, see if it’s an option to move the dates or [if they’re] willing to accept, and then turn around and have to give them some kind of special deal for the days that they can’t fish halibut,” Ensley said.
This year, charter fishermen are barred from fishing halibut all Wednesdays and six days in July and August. That’s an additional three days from last year.
And each person is limited to two fish daily, with one less than or equal to 28 inches. That’s been pretty consistent over the last few years, and Ensley says he doesn’t take issue with it.
But Ensley would be willing to trade more fishing for fewer fish. He says he’d take an allotment of one fish per person in exchange for keeping all the fishing days.
“We don’t need that two halibut. Especially in Kodiak,” Ensley said.
Chris Fiala of Kodiak Island Charters agrees. He says the Kodiak area is lumped into the same regulatory district as communities along the road system like Homer and Seward.
“And the problem is that we’re significantly different than their type of demand,” Fiala said. “They have the impulsive demand from the larger areas, from Anchorage.”
Fiala says a lot of tourists fly into Kodiak for week long stays, and while his customers catch a lot of different types of fish, he calls halibut a number one draw.
“They want to be able to go out and catch halibut any day they go out,” Fiala said. “So the one fish really fits us really to a T.”
Fiala says Kodiak charter businesses have talking about a more open schedule for years, and he’s still hoping for a change sometime in the future.
Andy Mezirow is a charter operator in Seward and serves on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Mezirow says it’s unlikely that Kodiak could cut off from the rest of the district with its own management measures.
“The problem is if we created a rural designation and we tried to manage them separately, it wouldn’t just be Kodiak,” Mezirow said. “It would be every rural area that wants in on it. And then there are a lot more boats and then their behavior – it’s just, it’s much more difficult to break it down by sub areas.”
Mezirow says the entire district is “feeling the pinch of a restricted harvest” and everybody would like more days and more opportunity, but there has to be a way to stay within the allocation to do that.
“And I think the better question for the Kodiak fishermen to consider is do you want to consider selling one halibut under 30 pounds or one over 200 as the option that you’re selling in order to free yourself up to do more trips? And in the rest of 3A, most fishermen have felt no,” Mezirow said.
Mezirow says they’d rather use their boat to do sightseeing or salmon fishing or other activities on those closed days and have less dependency on halibut built in their business models.
Mezirow says adapting and diversifying could be the key to attracting customers despite bag limits.