With their steady flow of tourists out of state considerably dried up, fishing charter operations seek to lure Alaskans onto their boats in hopes of saving their season.
Fishing charters are currently allowed to operate at 50% of their capacity if they embark people from different households, and they can fill their boats to their maximum capacity if the whole group lives together. That’s according to updated health mandates set by the state for phase two of Governor Mike Dunleavy’s plan to reopen Alaska’s economy. With some of the lowest per capita numbers of COVID-19 disease in the country, Alaska is reopening a little earlier than most states.
Yet strict health and safety requirements associated with the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for anyone visiting Alaska will make it difficult to fill charter boats, according to Ben Martin, chairman of the state. Homer Charter Association. So difficult in fact, that Martin canceled all of his online reservations until June. He just wants to wait and see what things will be like later in the summer.
Martin said the safety and health requirements spelled out in state health mandates are easier for some boats and maybe a bit more difficult for others, but overall they are generally achievable. Cleaning is fairly easy and captains regularly clean their ships anyway, he said. Now they’ll just have to do it while they’re fishing.
A charter for charter states that passengers and crew should avoid passing rods back and forth, and Martin said this could be more difficult depending on the vessel’s configuration. Keeping at least 6 feet between crew and passengers, and between people who are not from the same household, is also easier said than done on small boats, Martin said.
âSocial distancing is quite difficult,â he said. âAll boats are quite different.
For the moment, Martin only takes âclosedâ groups, or people who all live together.
While Martin’s online booking is closed, he said people can call them and he decides if it’s worth the trip after a discussion with them. At this point, he did not see fit to take groups where not everyone lives under the same roof.
The last group he took were three people from Eagle River who all lived together. For them, the passage of the rods was not a problem.
In order to avoid the added burden of some of the social distancing requirements, Martin said he just isn’t taking so many people on board.
âAnd that means I have to increase my rates a bit,â he said.
While the safety and cleanliness requirements of the state’s health mandate can be met, Martin said a bigger issue is threatening the local charter fishing season.
âThe only thing that’s really difficult is the 14-day quarantine for people who come in,â he said.
This essentially cuts off the Alaska charter fishing industry to its regular tourist clientele, unless they have planned a long trip of more than two weeks. Even then, Martin said he wasn’t sure who would want to spend two weeks sitting in an Anchorage hotel before they could go fishing.
To solve this problem, charter fishermen hope to change some of their season’s management regulations to encourage Alaskan residents to get out on the water more than they usually do.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board is holding a special meeting on Friday to consider requests to change individual fishing quota (IFQ) provisions for halibut and sablefish and to change some management measures for halibut charters in zones 2C (south-east) and 3A (center-south).
In Area 2C, the proposal is to increase the size of halibut that can be caught from 40 inches or less to 45 inches or less. This change would only be implemented when the state lifts its 14-day quarantine requirement. The proposal for Area 3A is to have a two-fish catch limit with no size restriction for any halibut, eliminate the annual limit and allow fishing every day of the week with no blackout days. The 3A proposal would go into effect upon final approval, but would only last until travel restrictions are lifted by the state. Then the rules for 3A would revert to what they were before.
These changes are requested by those involved in charter fishing. Martin said they were being asked to encourage Alaskan residents to book charters this summer to make up for lost business. Outbound tourists make up about 90% of local charter business, Martin said. In recent years, it just hasn’t been worth it for residents, he said.
Another proposal made to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board is that a mechanism be established to roll over any unused 2020 charter allocations into areas 2C and 3A to top up the 2021 catch limits.
According to documents from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board meeting, the International Pacific Halibut Commission recommended at its 2020 meeting that the combined catch limit for the commercial and charter fisheries of halibut be approximately 9 million pounds for zone 3A. The chartered fishery received around Â£ 1.7 million of that amount, according to the meeting document.
Martin said changes in fisheries management are being requested in part because stakeholders are not concerned about exceeding that number.
âWe feel like we’re not even going to come close to our allocation,â he said.
Martin said some of the demands in the proposals are expected to expire as soon as the state lifts its travel restrictions to ensure the charter fishing fleet does not exceed its allocation. If travel and tourism return a little more to normal, Martin said, charters must revert to regulation of the status quo. If things are too liberalized, that’s when they risk going over their allocation, he said.
At its meeting on Monday, members of Homer’s city council voted in favor of a resolution supporting the proposed changes to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board.
âWe went from being 50% Alaskan residents, and then once we had these very restrictive regulations, that type of 50% Alaskan residents went down,â Martin told the council. municipal at Monday’s meeting.
He told the council the measures were supported by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
If the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board approves the charter fishing industry’s requests, then the proposals would be submitted to the International Pacific Halibut Commission for approval.
Contact Megan Pacer at [email protected]