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Coast Guard rule changes will hurt Bristol Bay sport fish industry, say lodges

Tikchik Narrows Lodge

USCG moving guides to full OUVP ("six pack") licenses on Western Alaska rivers. Lodge owners say change is not feasible for their industry now.

The U.S. Coast Guard is in the process of implementing new regulations that sport fishing lodges in Bristol Bay say will harm their business this year. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more:

Audio transcript below:

Bud Hodson is the longtime owner/operator of the Tikchik Narrows Lodge north of Dillingham. The lodge sits in the heart of the Wood Tikchik State Park, and anglers and VIPs come from around the world for a week of some of the best flyfishing to be found. In a short three month window this summer, Hodson will put 250 anglers on some of Bristol Bay’s best lakes and rivers for a price of $8300 per person, per week.

Tikchik Narrows, one of about a dozen high end lodges in the area, will gross about $2 million this year. 

Hodson, and other lodge owners, are not happy about new Coast Guard regulations he says they just found out about.

"What they're proposing is totally infeasible, and it will impact our industry in a huge way, huge way," he said.

What the Coast Guard is proposing are modifications to the licenses used by guides, and the requirements to get those licenses. In the past, Hodson’s guides could operate on a "limited" OUVP, or Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel. The change, however, will now restrict a person with that license to guiding on only three waterways, and the operator must have 90 days experience on each of those waterways.

"Which in our business is impossible. You take Kulik Lake, I mean how do you get a boat up there, and what are you going to camp for 90 days just to get a license to operate that river?"

Nor, he says, is operating on only three waterways feasible for a sportfishing guide in Bristol Bay.

"For me, because we fly out and fish so many different waterways, it makes the guide unemployable. Because I can't use them anywhere except a very limited area."

The Coast Guard seems to be pushing the Western Alaska sport fishing industry towards the use of the full OUVP licenses, known as the "six pack". The problem there, says Hodson, is that it takes 360 days operating a vessel on the water to earn that.

"Which that in itself discriminates against Alaskans, because how do you get 360 days of sea service time if you live in Dillingham or Aleknagik, when most of the winter the lakes are frozen? So they're expecting someone who lives in Western Alaska to take four years to be qualified to be a fishing guide? To me that seems pretty extreme and it's totally discriminatory to Alaskans."

Hodson says he will now recruit guides in the Lower 48 who have the full "six pack" license, but that it may be a scramble to fill his vacant positions before his fishing clients arrive for the season.

He says the Coast Guard didn’t ask for any public input, and in fact he and a few other owners only found out about the changes second hand.

"They have not even notified the entire industry of these new regulations yet. You could have lodges who have already hired people that are planning on taking the limited-OUVP course, and all of a sudden now they're not going to be employable."

The Coast Guard has declined to comment yet, only saying that the new rules have been taken back for a review, but that they are likely to stay in effect as is for now.