Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Halibut war helps lawyers

Conflict over the federal government's plan to impose a one-fish daily bag limit on charter boat anglers in Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) is sparking an expensive legal battle.

Both sides, the commercial fleet and the charter fleet, have put out open calls for cash to finance their legal efforts.

Charter boat operators on Friday went to federal court for the second year in a row in an attempt to block the one-fish rule. Last year they successfully persuaded a judge to block the rule based on procedural issues.

The government has refined its rule and is trying again to impose it this summer, saying the reduced bag limit is necessary to curtail the growing charter catch in a region where halibut abundance is declining.

Normally, the bag limit is two fish per day, not one. Charter boat operators say denying their clients a second fish could wreck their businesses.

The one-fish rule takes effect beginning June 5, assuming the charter boat plaintiffs fail to block it again.

In a May 9 fundraising appeal on the Charter Halibut Task Force Web site, Earl Comstock, an attorney for the charter boat operators, said pressing the lawsuit would cost $60,000.

Comstock said success this time is far from guaranteed.

"There is no sure thing in litigation, and everyone needs to understand that the courts give great deference to the government in any court challenge," he wrote.

The lawsuit pits a handful of charter operators against federal regulators trying to impose the one-fish rule. It technically doesn't involve the commercial longliners who favor the rule, viewing the charter fleet as a growing competitor for the limited supply of halibut in Southeast.

Today, however, commercial fishermen, processors and others united as the Halibut Coalition filed as an intervener in the case.

One commercial fishing group, the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association (PVOA), sent out its own fundraising plea on Friday, the day the charter operators filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court in Washington, D.C.

"Every dollar counts, and even though times are tight right now we need your support to protect your livelihood!" the PVOA wrote, directing contributions to the Halibut Coalition. "Ask your crewmembers for a donation, talk to your neighbors at the dock and tell them to send in their support."

Here's the Halibut Coalition's press release on its effort to gain intervener status.

All in all, this thing seems to be shaping up as a bruising fight for all concerned. Except perhaps the lawyers.

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