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Judge Upholds Halibut Fishing Limits in Alaska

WASHINGTON (CN) - The government can limit the number of permits for halibut charter boats in the Gulf of Alaska to promote conservation of the prized fish, a federal judge ruled.

A trade group, the Charter Operators of Alaska, had challenged restrictions on permits to applicants that had participated in the fishery in 2008 and either 2004 or 2005.

Because the rules limited the number of permits issued, rather than the amount of halibut that could be caught, they "were not reasonably calculated to promote conservation of halibut," the group said.

It claimed this violated the Halibut Act.

In a cross-motion for summary judgment, the National Marine Fisheries Service argued that the rules were the first step in a long-term conservation process and that a one-fish-per-day limit imposed in 2008 addressed the short-term concerns.

The agency claimed that the rules aimed to limit growth of the industry by minimizing "the potential for speculative investment and participation in the charter fishery."

Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lambeth sided with the service, noting that the Halibut Act did not say that conservation could only be achieved by immediate reductions in harvest.

Citing 9th Circuit decision in Alliance Against IFQs v. Brown, Lamberth said that "unlimited access tends to cause a decline in fisheries because as more boats enter the region, fewer fish escape and live to reproduce."

The charter group also argued that the local council charged with drafting the rules did not develop a fishery management plan (FMP) based on the "optimum yield" of halibut that could be caught while maintaining the viability of the species and the fishery.

Again, Lambeth noted the Halibut Act was silent on the issue. "The Halibut Act does not expressly require that regional councils ... establish FMPs or optimum yield estimates," he wrote.

Finally, the charter group argued that the rules were not fair and equitable under the act because 327 charter businesses did not qualify for permits.

Lambeth dismissed this argument by pointing out that the service warned all charterers in 2006 - four years before it adopted the permits limits - that future participation could not be guaranteed.

He also noted that the service considered equity and fairness by adopting rules intended to "include those fishermen who were more likely to depend on the charter fishery for their livelihood."

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