Fishermen Question Halibut Count
Sunday, July 26, 2009 Story last updated at 7/26/2009 - 2:44 am
One fish, two fish
Picketing fishermen question halibut count
By Kate Golden | JUNEAU EMPIRE
KLAS STOLPE / JUNEAU EMPIRE
Southeast Alaska longline fisherman protest outside the Alaska Department of Fish & Game building during a march to the Capitol on Friday to gain support for a sport harvest ticket system.
The protesters walked from Harris Harbor to the Department of Fish and Game carrying signs.
"Let all the fish be counted."
There were no more than 10 protesters, but their beliefs are widely held among commercial fishermen: Charter captains and lodge owners are underreporting their clients' halibut catch, and Fish and Game needs to do a better job counting it.
"We feel like no one's listening," said Terry Smith, whose sign said simply, "States Fish Future."
Halibut is managed by a federal agency. But the department's Sport Fish Division is charged with counting fish harvests in Alaska, whether state or federally managed, nonguided fishermen or those on charter boats.
This fish count is just one part of the battle in a years-long war over halibut between charters and commercial fishermen.
Charter captains, for their part, have their own problems with the counting. They resent allegations that they're untrustworthy. And they complain Fish and Game is forcing them to do onerous amounts of paperwork to track their clients' fish - earlier this year, they considered boycotting it.
But on Friday, it was commercial fishermen's turn to direct frustration at Fish and Game. They want the department to implement a harvest ticket, on which all sport fishermen - guided or not - report what they've caught within a week.
"Nobody has any idea what's going on with those fish," said James Whitethorn, a longtime Petersburg fisherman who organized Friday's picket. "They're a year lag behind on just counting the fish."
Deputy Sport Fish director Rob Bentz defended the state's fish counting methods, which he said cost about $2.5 million a year and are always being refined.
"There are always complaints that the numbers are wrong," he said. "But I never see any proof that they're wrong."
State fish counters have three methods. One, they mail out a survey to sportfishing license holders, whether in Ketchikan or Arkansas. That information comes a year after the fish are taken, and about 40 percent of the fishermen respond, Bentz said.
Two, there are "creel surveys" in which Fish and Game employees go to the docks and check on what people have caught.
And three, charter captains must report their clients' catches weekly; this logbook information must be manually entered and is available two months later.
Bentz said the department recognizes it needs to obtain and process sport catch information faster. It is planning to make the charters turn in logs that can be scanned into a computer, to cut down on the data entry and get fish managers the data in two weeks instead of two months. And the department is working on a three-year study comparing its mail-out survey data to the logbook data.
A harvest ticket system, he said, did not work when Fish and Game tried it on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1980s, Bentz said.
"It did not provide the information we needed," he said. "We needed to have every single person turn it in, and that just wasn't happening."
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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