Gulf rationalization dies a quiet death
Gulf of Alaska groundfish will remain an open access fishery indefinitely after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council tabled a policy package that has enraged fishermen of all stripes over the last year.
Depending on who is asked, the council acted at either its best or its worst with the decision.
“The council process didn’t work. They didn’t solve the problem,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, an industry group of trawlers and processors. “They just took the political part first and ignored the management. I have to keep reminding myself, this isn’t about management. It’s about politics.”
Others said the council did exactly what it should have done in the face of so many contentious decisions on which so many people expressed opinions.
“I think this is actually the best illustration of council process, rather than the worst,” said Duncan Fields, a Kodiak attorney and former council member who was among the most vocal on this subject.
“It shows that one gear group with a particular ideology and particular economic interest with very good advocates can’t just jam something through the council,” he said. “The council allows other participants, small boat fishermen, community, stakeholders to also have a voice, and that voice has said a catch share program is not the best public policy. You don’t always get the result you want.”
Sam Cotten, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, advanced the motion to table the package.
Cotten said he didn’t have much of a choice considering how intensely divided Gulf of Alaska fishermen and community members were on the issue.
“I think we had to make or break to inspire recognition that we’re divided, that we need to consider a different direction,” Cotten said. “The advocates just weren’t going to offer any compromises or any concessions. We are in a different place now. I’m hopeful people will reconsider their stances, and we will to.”
Gulf of Alaska rationalization
The plan would have enacted one of several options to reduce the amount of halibut and chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery.
Groundfish includes pollock and non-pelagic, or bottom-dwelling, species such as Pacific cod, Arrowtooth flounder and rockfish.
In the end, the plans satisfied no one.
Cotton introduced the motion to table after another marathon session of grievances from trawlers, processors, Kodiak residents, Southeast Alaska residents and various small boat fishermen.
The plan aimed to fix a bycatch issue in the Gulf of Alaska. Bycatch happens when groundfish fishermen pulling up Pacific cod, pollock, and flatfish haul in non-target species. In the Gulf groundfish fisheries, chinook salmon and halibut are the main species taken as bycatch, also known as prohibited species catch, or PSC.
Conservation concerns led the council to lower the halibut bycatch limits by 15 percent in 2012; the council created chinook salmon bycatch caps for the pollock and non-pollock trawl fleets in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
Hitting limits ends fishing, which happened to the non-pollock fleet in the Western Gulf last year, leading to an emergency council action to allocate some salmon bycatch from the pollock fishery to the non-pollock fishery to allow fishing to continue.
Groundfish fishermen from the trawl sector argue in favor of quota systems, which they say will slow the “race for fish” that makes it difficult to reduce bycatch.
Alternative 2 resembles a traditional catch share program, where fish are divvied out to fishermen in the form of quota. Small boat fishermen fear the effects of catch share programs, as they have a documented tendency to consolidate quota into the hands of better-capitalized fishermen.
Alternative 3 would have only created quota for bycatch, not for the target species.
Without a fix for the bycatch issue, trawl representatives say they have to wait until either a new governor and new commissioner of Fish and Game, or for their fishery to continue closing over bycatch concerns.
“The fishery structure is broken and the council just couldn’t find a solution,” said Bonney. “Either you have a change in the administration or you have some kind of economic disaster. Those are the two things that would promote change. I can’t guess (which would happen first).”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].