Gulf fishermen wary of Congressional intrusion into council process
Editor's note: Stephen Taufen of Groudswell Fisheries Movement did not write the petition distributed by AMCC. This article refers to a seperate memo of his own distributed to interested parties in which he alludes to Rep. Beutler.
Gulf of Alaska fishermen suspect that Washington, D.C., politics might come into play for fisheries regulations they want left to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
A letter circulated by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and signed by 250 Gulf of Alaska fishermen and residents was sent to each of Alaska’s three congressional delegation members.
The letter asks that the Alaska’s representatives in the nation’s capital oppose any legislation intended to press Gulf of Alaska fisheries regulations.
“Specifically, we request our Alaska delegation to support development of a Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program (aka catch share) in the Council process so all stakeholders may contribute to a transparent process,” the letter asks.
“Please do not support any attempt to circumvent the council process through legislation in Washington, D.C., as that would effectively preclude Alaskan coastal communities and stakeholders from having a direct voice in the process.”
During ComFish, an annual Kodiak commercial fisheries booster event, Stephen Taufen of Groundswell Fisheries Movement said that the Congresswoman in question is Rep. Jaime Hererra Beutler, R-Wash.
Beutler, a representative of southwest Washington, sits on the House Appropriations Committee. Much of the Gulf trawl industry is based in Seattle.
In the address and his own letter, Taufen alleged that Beutler’s office was contacted by trawl industry representatives and has drafted legislation.
“It is most likely they helped draft the closeted legislation,” Taufen said.
Beutler’s office did not respond to calls for comment.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, one of six Alaskans who make up the majority of the 11 voting council members, said he hasn’t seen any evidence, only rumor, and that members of Congress from Washington or Oregon would be unlikely to force such legislation at the federal level.
Legislative action directing North Pacific council actions would not be unprecedented in Alaska’s history. Two North Pacific federal fisheries programs came from federal legislative action either in addition to or instead of council action.
Crab rationalization — which assigned individual quota shares to vessel owners, captains and processors to replace the derby-style fishing that made it the most dangerous fishery in the nation — depended in part on the late Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to implement.
In 2001, Stevens urged the North Pacific council to examine whether the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery should be rationalized. In 2002, the North Pacific council was in unanimous support of crab rationalization and approved it with an 11-0 vote.
Stevens’ rider in the Consolidated Appropriations Bill of 2003 ordered the Secretary of Commerce to approve the council’s action on crab rationalization. The Commerce secretary must approve all council actions as meeting national standards and other applicable laws before they can be implemented, but Stevens’ rider removed any discretion from the cabinet position in the case of crab rationalization.
Stevens put a similar mandate into the 2004 consolidated appropriations bill, this time directing the North Pacific council to establish a Gulf rockfish pilot program. The five-year pilot program ran from 2007-12 and was reauthorized by the council with significant changes in 2012.
The letter to Alaska’s delegation aiming to stave off an intervention in council action is the latest in a protracted regulations dispute.
The Gulf of Alaska forms the core of a contentious fishery management argument that has gotten more heated since an October 2015 North Pacific meeting.
The trawl industry insists the council’s Alaska membership has an embedded antagonism towards it, evidenced by Gov. Bill Walker’s council nominations and an unpopular regulation option.
At the October 2015 meeting, Cotten introduced a new management alternative into a broader regulations package that has been under consideration for years in its most recent iteration and traces its council roots to the early 2000s.
The overall package contains a series of options to lower bycatch rates and increase safety in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries, potentially by creating a quota system. These fisheries are some of the last remaining in the North Pacific without a quota system assigning fishing privileges to harvesters.
The trawl industry has adamantly opposed Cotten’s Alternative 3, and feels that the council erred in moving it forward in the regulations process.
Alternative 3 would implement a bycatch quota system rather than a traditional catch share program, which allocates individual target species quota to fishermen based on historical catch and other factors. Instead of target species, Alternative 3 would only create a bycatch quota system.
Trawlers say the bycatch quota system in Alternative 3 would cripple their industry, instead favoring Alternative 2, a more traditional catch share program that would assign both directed species quota and bycatch quota.
Trawlers flocked to the council’s Portland meeting in February to urge the council to not move Alternative 3 forward into the environmental impact analysis process.
Opponents of the catch share program fear job losses and widespread consolidation of capital and ownership, observed byproducts of past quota system implementations. Cotten’s alternative intends to avoid some of these consequences. The council did move Alternative 3 into analysis, saying it deserved thorough review despite its unpopularity with the trawl industry.
Against this backdrop, Walker appointed two new members of the North Pacific council in March to fill seats that will expire in June.
The nominations of Buck Laukitis of Homer and Theresa Peterson of Kodiak infuriated the trawl industry, which believes both are fundamentally opposed to large vessels, Outside fishermen, and trawlers.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].