Homer is known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” But, charter operators aren’t just targeting the prized bottom fish these days. An ongoing study published in the scientific journal Public Library of Science aims to find out how charter operators’ fishing habits have evolved and the ripple effect of their decisions.
University of Fairbanks Ph.D. candidate Maggie Chan wants to know how and why the fishing charter industry is changing in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
Chan and Associate Professor of Fisheries Anne Beaudreau interviewed several fishing charter owners in Sitka and Homer, most of whom have been in business since the 1990s.
Part one of Chan’s study focuses on where charters are taking their customers.
“So in a way, I’d like to think of this first paper as putting the picture frame down,” Chan explained. “We’re going to start filling in the picture of what people are seeing in the water and the changes they’ve seen over time in the next few papers.”
This is important because popular fishing grounds are chosen not just for the availability of fish, but the variety of species that can be caught in one place. Chan found in the early 1990s, charters primarily targeted halibut around Kachemak Bay and in Lower Cook Inlet. In the ladder part of the decade, fishermen started offering multi-species trips.
“When we see the addition of combination or multi-species trips, people were traveling further south to the Barren and Chugach islands,” Chan said. “That is very distinctly associated with a multi-species trip because there’s more habitat down there for things like lingcod, rockfishes, etc.”
Then, when fuel prices hit an all-time high in 2008, fishermen stayed closer to town.
Captain Greg’s Charters owner Greg Sutter has been guiding fishing trips around Homer since 1995. Sutter caters to families and large groups. He said multi-species trips are still in high demand.
“When they come up to Alaska, they’re not only looking for the adventure, they would like to bring home as much meat as they can,” Sutter said of why people choose combo trips.
Chan conducted her interviews in 2014 and 2015. During that time, the decisions Homer charter operators were making were mostly business driven. Fishermen in Sitka say they chose their fishing grounds because of regulations imposed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
Homer charter operations have seen halibut regulations come down since. The halibut commission started cutting out days of the week operators could target the bottom fish. Sutter said multi-species trips have picked up some of the slack, but he’s turned away customers and has canceled advance bookings for halibut trips.
“We can try to sell a salmon trip, which some Wednesdays I’m able to, but not every Wednesday,” Sutter said.
Chan doesn’t just want to know what’s driving fishermen like Sutter’s choices. In subsequent papers, she will lay out what changes anglers are seeing in the waters they fish. She hopes her study will spur conversation between fishery managers and fishermen. Chan said that dialogue can help decision makers make big-picture management decisions.
Scott Meyer is a fishery biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer. Meyer collaborated on the study and agrees the study’s findings could be valuable for both federal and state fishery managers.
“It just helps everybody understand the behavioral response by the charter fishery to changes in halibut regulations,” Meyer explained.
Although halibut harvests are federally regulated, Meyer said fisheries around the state have felt the ripple effect of halibut regulations.
“We saw, for example, a big shift in Sitka and also in Kodiak, response to halibut regulations where it didn’t take many more boats targeting black rockfish to dramatically change the harvest in those areas,” he said. “So we had exponential increases in harvest in both of those fisheries.”
Chan and Beaudreau plan to publish the rest of the study within the next year.