North Pacific council gets review of Bering Sea pollock program

  • Clayton Smith and third-generation fisherman Shawn Koson of Chiniak work aboard the F/V Gold Rush while fishing for Alaska pollock. (Photo/Courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Shot in the Dark)

SEATTLE — After two years of almost ceaseless contention, the North Pacific regulatory waters have cooled down for now.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees all federal fisheries between three and 200 miles off the Alaska coast. One of eight regions, the North Pacific fishery is by far the country’s most profitable, having produced two-thirds of the country’s total seafood value in 2015.

Over the last two years, the council has been in battle mode over chinook salmon and halibut bycatch, and Gulf of Alaska groundfish catch shares. There have been parades of protest and industry stand-downs and rural Alaska villages emptied to give impassioned pleas alongside Seattle fishing crews and captains.

At the council’s Seattle meeting Feb. 1-6, the council rested for the most part, taking scant public comment and few final actions. Rather, it focused on some of the structures behind the chaos, reviewing catch share programs and looking for areas to tune up following two years of pushing the gas.

After indefinitely tabling a Gulf of Alaska catch share system four years in the works at its meeting this past December, the council reviewed the schematics behind the Bering Sea pollock fishery, Alaska’s largest fishery by volume.

The council asked that some information be refined and sent back to it, including effects on the outmigration of rural employment, the amount of Community Development Quota ownership, and the individual ownership for catcher vessels.

The American Fisheries Act was signed into law in 1998, designed to end foreign control of the Bering Sea pollock fishery. Under the new rules, vessels must be a minimum 75 percent U.S.-owned.

As with most of the continually evolving North Pacific fisheries, the biggest points included how the program has encouraged U.S. and Alaskan ownership and employment.

Indeed, the program did produce some consolidation. At start of 2000, 18 companies owned the 19 catcher-processors in the Bering Sea fishery. By 2015, seven companies owned them.

Impacts to fishing communities have been “largely beneficial,” according to the review’s authors, Marcus Hartley and Gary Eaton of research firm Northern Economics.

Frank Kelty, the city manager of Unalaska, talked of stability as the program’s best feature. Unalaska is the town home of Dutch Harbor, perennially the nation’s largest seafood port and where Kelty said AFA has led to steadier employment and steadier school enrollment.

Stakeholders and council both acknowledge that the AFA program was a big step in fisheries management, bringing a host of management tools into practice.

“We never talked about co-ops before AFA,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association. “We never talked about sideboards.”

Because issuing quota in the pollock fishery may free up opportunity to move into other fisheries, the sideboards set limits on the extent of those harvests so as not to crowd out other individuals not involved in harvesting pollock.

Both co-ops and sideboards continue to feature heavily in management talks, including a recently discarded program for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska.

The review was not without problems, however. The council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee hadn’t reviewed the study, leaving several questions.

Among other areas, council members wanted more information that the study had related to Community Development Quota, or CDQ, ownership and individual vessel ownerships.

The CDQ program that gives 10 percent of the overall groundfish harvest quota to 65 western Alaska villages within 50 miles of the coast.

The program was designed to promote economic health in those regions, and some of the review’s statistics point to success.

Over the length of the pollock-based program, royalties going to CDQ groups from the AFA fishery have increased.

From 2001 through 2005, CDQ royalties ranged between $42.6 million and $60.5 million per year, with increases every year. Pollock accounted for 79 percent to 86 percent of total all-species royalties in any given year during this period.

From 2007 to 2013, estimates ranged between $59.9 million and $79.5 million per year, with a general upward trend.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner and council member Sam Cotton wanted a more detailed breakdown of CDQ ownership in the fishery.

“The question here is how much of that fishery is staying in Alaska,” said Cotten. “How big a share of the fishery is owned by CDQ groups? In terms of percentage of the vessels, or harvesting capacity, revenue?”

Hartley said that he has made those calculations before, but not for the current study.

The study had similar gaps where the AFA’s 100 individual catcher vessels were concerned. By AFA design, none of these vessels can have anything less than 75 percent U.S. ownership. Council member Buck Laukitis wanted to make sure that these vessels weren’t skirting the rules.

Inshore catcher vessel ownership info, Hartley explained “was insufficient to determine changes in ownerships pattern.”

Those records are held by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, which is tasked under the AFA with ensuring compliance for the U.S. ownership rules. Hartley said Northern Economics could not get access to much of the proprietary information.

Updated: 
02/08/2017 - 4:13pm