(KFSK file photo)

Federal fisheries managers are proposing an additional change to help charter halibut fishing businesses in Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf of Alaska during lean years for the valuable bottom fish. The change would allow one non-profit organization to buy commercial halibut quota shares to loosen restrictive bag and size limits for charter clients.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing a rule change that would allow one non-profit organization, called a Recreational Quota Entity or RQE, to purchase halibut quota shares from the commercial fleet.

“The Recreational Quota Entity would be able to buy quota shares from the commercial setline sector and use those quota shares to translate into additional harvest opportunities in the charter boat sector,” said Kurt Iverson, a fisheries management specialist at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

That could mean easing restrictions on the number and size of halibut that charter clients can keep in years with low halibut abundance, but only up to a point. That point would be the daily limit for unguided sport anglers, currently two fish of any size.

The proposed rule was recommended by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in December 2016.

Annual limits of halibut are divided up between the commercial and charter fleets in both areas under a catch sharing plan. That plan already allows individual charter businesses to lease commercial halibut shares to loosen restrictions on their client’s catch, under what’s called Guided Angler Fish. Annually about 48-thousand pounds have been leased under that program because of prices as high as $5 a pound.

Samantha Weinstein , executive director of the SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization, said the proposed program could benefit all charter clients in Southeast and South Central Alaska. She explained the existing program for Guided Angler Fish is only works on a limited basis for individual charter businesses.

“An individual fisherman can buy his own quota shares for the commercial fishery and then lease them to himself,” she said. “Otherwise it is pretty prohibitive for individual business operators to find a commercial fisherman that they can lease quota shares for. The prices change every year so it’s really hard to work that into a business plan. This RQE would spread the benefit across the entire fishery. It wouldn’t require that every individual find a way to change their business plan.”

Weinstein expects a two-year timeline to organize a Recreational Quota Entity, create a board of directors and develop funding for that organization. Money to pay for quota shares could be a mix of grants, loans or a tax on charter businesses, similar to taxes paid by commercial fishermen for marketing or enhancement.

“I’m not sure if everyone’s seen a recent report that came out but it showed that while other areas in the Southeast economy are struggling, tourism is for the first time the most successful private industry in Southeast Alaska and increasing catch opportunities encourages visitors and locals to travel around Southeast to spend money around town and use charter boats,” Weinstein said. “So it’s great support for local businesses and increasing job opportunities. So we wanna make sure that we can do everything that we can to encourage more people to come and visit and fish in Southeast.”

There are limits to how much of the commercial quota shares that the charter organization could buy from the longline fleet. That charter organization could also sell those shares back to longline fisherman. And if halibut populations increase, there’s also an allowance for reallocating shares from the charter organization back to the commercial fleet.

“The RQE can’t hold all the shares,” NOAA Fisheries’ Iverson explained. “If halibut abundance is such that they’ve got more than they need, that reallocation was sort of a safeguard there or compromise, if you wanna call it that, between the commercial sector and the charter sector.”

Iverson said he’s not aware of this kind of program in use elsewhere in the country.

A 45-day public comment period on the change ends November 17th.