Commercial longline fishing fleets in Alaska are awaiting word about whether the season for halibut and black cod will actually start on March 11th. That’s the date voted on for halibut fishing by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in January. Typically the National Marine Fisheries Service also opens long-line fishing for black cod on the same day. This year that’s all up in the air.

The reason for the uncertainty is an executive order from President Trump in January requiring for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination. Trump also issued a 60-day freeze on new and pending regulations until they had been reviewed by the head of an agency appointed by the president.

The start dates for the fishing seasons require the publishing of regulations in the Federal Register. As of late February those regulations had not yet been published.
During a recent stop in Ketchikan, Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said she’s trying to get to the bottom of what the president’s executive order means for Alaska fisheries.

“While I like the idea of eliminating some of the regulatory underbrush I think we recognize that in certain areas and this is exactly one of those we count on our agencies to be prompt and diligent in laying down these regs so that people can engage in their business and their livelihood,” Murkowski said. “We need to make that happen.” Murkowski said she didn’t yet know about whether the season would be able to start on March 11.

John Ewald, a spokesman with the headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said this week no official announcement on halibut season has yet happened, but he expected to provide more information soon. Ewald wrote in an email that the agency is working with the Department of Commerce, Office of Management and Budget, and the new Administration to determine how the executive order could possibly affect regulatory actions.

Photo from the International Pacific Halibut Commission

Photo from the International Pacific Halibut Commission

Linda Behnken is executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and is a U.S. representative on the halibut commission. She called it “a bit of a scramble” every year for the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the season regulations published in time. “But this year with the change in administration and the administration rule of rescinding two regs for every one new reg there’s been a little bit more confusion and concern about the season opening on time than usual,” she explained. “But what I’m hearing right now from people in NMFS Juneau is that they are optimistic that the season will open on time. They’re doing all they can to move the regs through the process. They’ll know more by next week. But again at this point they’re optimistic.”

If the season is able to open on March 11, that corresponds to some bigger tides this year. Bigger tides can make it more difficult to set gear for the bottom fish and Behnken says the halibut commission is hoping to hear feedback on whether that creates problems for fishermen this year.

(Editor’s note: KRBD’s Maria Dudzak in Ketchikan contributed to this story)