Scientists at the International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting in Seattle last week revealed survey results that show shrinking halibut numbers. The stock assessment is down 23 percent from last summer, and the total biomass (in weight) dropped 10 percent. The survey runs annually May through September at nearly 1,500 stations from Oregon to the Bering Sea.

While commercial halibut quotas are set to drop, charter operators are likely to increase.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a Recreational Quota Entity program, which will allow commercial fishermen to sell their halibut catch shares to a common pool for charter operators to draw from as needed.

Under the plan, the RQE can hold 10 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Southeast Alaska and 12 percent from the Southcentral region, making it the single largest halibut-holding entity in the North Pacific.

The program would be phased in over 10 years with transfers of 1 percent and 1.2 percent from these regions.

It is unclear where the quota entity will get the estimated $25 million needed to buy halibut shares. Some have suggested a self-funding option, such as a halibut stamp, similar to king salmon, or a voluntary tax.

The program is strongly opposed by commercial fishermen, who currently have the ability to lease — but not sell — halibut quota into the sport sector.

In written comments, the Halibut Coalition’s Tom Gemmell stated that it “undermines the goal of maintaining an owner operated fleet, and will force fishermen to compete for quota against a subsidized entity.”

Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said charter effort has remained relatively constant or increased despite catch conservation measures.

“Charter operators claim their clients need more harvesting opportunity despite low abundance, ignoring the obvious need for all sectors to conserve during times of low abundance,” Behnken said.

Longtime fisheries advocate Clem Tillion called quota entities the “death of a small-boat, owner-operated fishery,” adding “Holland America and Carnival Cruise lines will buy the quota, and hired hands will fish it. And the small boat fleet out of villages is gone.”

The halibut quota entity plan is set to begin next year.

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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