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Charter operators fear early closure of halibut fishery

January 7th, 2011 by MuskegPress

Charter operators up and down the coast of B.C. are concerned the recreational halibut fishery could be shut down as early as mid-July, pushing away clients and costing them money. But the Department of Fisheries & Oceans says it cannot predict when the season will close because it hasn’t yet set any daily limits on halibut for 2011, nor has it announced when the fishery will actually open.

Charter fishermen are angry with their allocation of 12 per cent of the total allowable catch of halibut, mandated by the federal government, which they say is too low.

Rodney Proskiw, the owner/operator of Fishin’ Rods Charters in Prince Rupert, says he has had to deal with early closures in the past, after the federal government declared the industry went over the 12 per cent limit mid-way through the season.

Since many of Proskiw’s customers come to Rupert to fish for halibut, the early closures have put his business in an uncertain situation. “When the carpet gets pulled from under us in the middle of the season, what do we do?” he asks.

The halibut fishery on the west coast of North America is managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), a regulating body with Canadian and American representatives that determine conservation levels of the resource. Although fishermen tend to distrust and lash out against any government body, the IPHC is a shining exception: many recreational halibut fishermen respect it as a top-notch management entity.

Using data from the previous fishing year, as well as measurements on biomass levels, the IPHC sets the total allowable catch for 10 fishing regions in the seas off the west coast. These numbers are then handed down to the respective governments to implement and monitor the halibut catch. In Canada, Area 2B is the main concern: it stretches along the entire west coast of the country.

Last month, the IPHC’s staff made a recommendation for the total allowable catch of halibut in Area 2B for the 2011 season: 7.65 million pounds, up from 7.5 million pounds in 2010. This is not the final number – it is still up to the IPHC’s commissioners and advisory bodies to adopt the official total allowable catch for the halibut fishery.

Since 2003, Canadian fishermen have been regulated by the 88-12 rule, monitored by the Department of Fisheries & Oceans. The IPHC’s total allowable catch for halibut is divided between two industries: the commercial fishery, which receives 88 per cent; and the recreational fishery, which receives 12 per cent. So if this year’s allocation stays at 7.65 million pounds, the commercial fishery’s limit on halibut will be 6.73 million pounds, while the recreational fishery’s limit will be 0.92 million pounds.

The 88-12 percent division, which was legislated by the government in 2003, is the biggest sticking point in the debate for recreational fishermen. Since its inception, says Paul Rickard, the recreational industry has been fighting the rule.

Rickard is with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, one of the member organizations of the B.C. Sportfishing Coalition, formed in December 2010. He says members of the recreational industry have written and met with various fisheries ministers for the past seven years to change the 88-12 rule, all without success. As a last resort, he says the coalition was formed to mobilize support in town-hall meetings across Vancouver Island, and to encourage its members to write to their MPs and MLAs.

“This coming year could be a disaster,” says Rickard, who, like Proskiw, predicts the recreational halibut fishery will be closed sometime in July. “How do you book people in when you don’t even know what you’ll be able to offer or when you’ll be able to offer it?”

Rickard estimates there are 100,000 recreational fishermen out in the Pacific each year, who bring in about $650 million to the provincial economy. This year, those 100,000 fishermen will be allotted 0.92 million pounds, if the commission accepts the recommendation of the IPHC staff. Rickard says it simply isn’t fair that the remaining 6.73 million pounds are allotted to 435 commercial licence-holders.

And Rickard is not alone in that opinion. While operators like Proskiw don’t have any harsh feelings towards the commercial fishing industry, they say the needs of a vast majority are being denied to make 435 people very wealthy.

“As long as the 88-and-12 exists, there will be a problem,” says Proskiw. “Our government is just divvying it up all wrong.”

Proskiw says a slight rise, say, to 16 per cent, may even be enough. “But something has to happen,” he says.

A spokesman with the Department of Fisheries & Oceans says the prediction of a mid-July closure is based on the recreational industry’s advice to the government. Tamee Mawani, the regional manager for groundfish in the Pacific region for Fisheries & Oceans, says the Sport Fishing Advisory Board (which represents the recreational industry in negotiations with government) advised the government on a daily limit of two halibut, up from one halibut per day last year – which they predict would close the fishery in July.

“That was their advice to us,” says Mawani.

Mawani also points out the Department of Fisheries & Oceans has not yet set a daily limit for the recreational halibut fishery for the 2011 season, and it has not decided when it will open. She says the government is aware of the concerns over the 88-12 rule, and it has discussed the issue since April 2010 with the recreational & the commercial industry (represented by the Pacific Halibut Management Association).

Mawani says it is ultimately up to the minister to decide whether or not to increase the 12 per cent allocation.

Meanwhile, the total allowable catch for halibut in both industries will be set by the IPHC at its annual meeting, held this year in Victoria from January 25-28.

~Written by Chris Armstrong. Photo submitted.