Council takes first steps toward Gulf catch share plan
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is moving ahead on a rationalization program for the central Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet, but where it takes that program still has many questions.
The council approved a purpose and needs statement, and goals and objectives for a rationalization program, and asked staff for a discussion paper outlining catch share options that could meet the program’s objectives. The steps taken at the October council meeting in Anchorage are the first toward creating the program.
The council also set a control date of Dec. 31, 2012, which could be used in the future to gauge historic participation in the fleet. The control date is intended to limit speculative entrants in the fishery now that the council has started moving toward allocating fishing privileges, also known as catch shares.
A rationalized fishery offers the fishermen more tools to prevent bycatch by allocating a portion of the allowable harvest to certain vessels, cooperatives or other entities.
Julie Bonney from the Alaska Groundfish Databank, said the fleet is happy overall with the council’s motion.
“We want to see the race for fish end,” Bonney said.
That race is inherent in the current system, where all participants in the fishery are going after the same pool of fish. The result is fish of a lower quality and less strategic fishing than otherwise might be possible, Bonney said.
Kodiak City Council member Terry Haines said the council’s motion incorporated much of the language that the city of Kodiak and the Kodiak Island Borough brought to the table.
“We were very heartened by their response to what we brought them,” Haines said.
But how, exactly, it will be fleshed out remains to be seen.
“We’re going to have to see what some of that language really means,” Haines said.
The purpose and needs statement lays out wide-ranging goals for the new management program.
The statement says, in part: “It is expected to improve stock conservation by creating vessel-level and/or cooperative-level incentives to eliminate wasteful fishing practices, provide mechanisms to control and reduce bycatch, and create accountability measures when utilizing (prohibited species catch), target, and secondary specie.”
Getting from the purpose and needs statement to a viable system is the next challenge. Creating the program will likely require compromise, said council member Sam Cotten.
“It is pretty scary to put your entire livelihood on the council table with all the knives coming out, starting (to dice you) up,” Bonney said. “You want to be whole at the end of the day.”
The council has already taken steps requiring trawlers to reduce their bycatch.
In August, a rule went into effect maximizing bycatch at 25,000 chinooks per year for pollock trawlers, which was prorated at 14,527 for the last half of 2012. And in June, the council voted to reduce allowable halibut bycatch by trawlers and longliners by 15 percent. The 15 percent cut, or about 660,000 pounds of halibut, is being phased in over three years, with implementation targeted to start in 2014.
But those requirements came without enough tools, according to industry representatives, making it difficult to comply.
Most of the focus is on reducing prohibited species catch, or PSC. The PSC cap dictates the amount of species like halibut and king salmon that can be pulled out of the ocean while fishing for target species like pollock or Pacific cod. Bycatch must be discarded or, in the case of salmon, donated to food banks.
Vessels have tried to form voluntary cooperatives, ensuring that PSC limits aren’t met before the full harvest is complete, but fishery participation by other boats not in the program makes that difficult.
Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association President Bob Krueger told the council that some of the trawl issues came to a head in the C season that began Aug. 15 for pollock in Area 620, which is the Central Gulf of Alaska.
“We had 40 vessels in our program, but had additional vessels come into the Gulf and fish outside the program,” Krueger said at the October council meeting. “Our harvest was exceeded by 2,000 metric tons, and now our entire D pollock season in area 620 is at risk.”
Just avoiding the chinook is expensive, Bonney said. With the right management system, incentives and tools, Bonney said the fleet can try to minimize the catch of those species.
But it’ll come with difficulties. Some fishing — like for arrowtooth flounder, rex sole, flat head sole, and shallow flat — is already limited because catching those would result in catching too much halibut.
“That’s all money that’s staying in the water because there’s not enough halibut available to the fleet today,” Bonney said. “Do you reduce that halibut cap even more, even though we’re already losing millions of dollars every year because we can’t prosecute a fishery today in status quo?”
The trawl fleet also doesn’t want the cap just ratcheted down because if abundance of those prohibited species increased, it could become even more difficult to avoid catching them.
And there’s more to bycatch than just the PSC.
“Bycatch is actually anything that you throw away and don’t keep,” Bonney said.
Other fish are caught on bycatch only status, meaning that trawl vessels can just keep a certain percentage of them and throw the rest back to sea. Those are regulatory discards.
“So that could be fishing flatfish, and you catch too much cod so you have to throw your cod away, or a portion of your cod away,” Bonney said.
And there are economic discards, which are fish that are not kept because they’re too small.
Ultimately, Bonney said the analysis will need to look at the various trade-offs involved in each decision point.
Moving forward, Bonney said she’d like to see a system that cobbles together target catch and bycatch in an effective management structure. A cooperative is a likely way to accomplish that, she said, because fisherman have to work together to reach the targets.Avoiding fleet consolidation
Bycatch isn’t the only concern about the new program.
Haines and Bonney both said they want to see a solution that doesn’t push Alaskans out of the industry due to consolidation.
Haines said the city and borough likely wouldn’t provide specific ideas about how to develop the rationalization program right away, nor would it get involved in the details of allocations. But the community does have some specific concerns. Those include the possibility of capital flight, and of consolidation. An active participation requirement might help, he said.
The lack of good data on how fishermen play into the economy makes it difficult to capture the potential effects of the program, too, Haines said. While the processing sector is a known quantity, there are more unknowns for the trawl fleet. No one knows exactly how each boat impacts the local economy, since crew and other spending components vary greatly. There’s also a difference between resident fishermen, and visitors who spend money locally but don’t reside there, that hasn’t been quantified.
Haines said fewer hands associated with each dollar, and losing the multiplier effect, if the program leads to consolidation, would be a concern.
The city and borough of Kodiak came up with a good process for getting public feedback and coming to a consensus on what could be contentious fishing issues, and Haines said that same process could continue to help inform the council once the discussion paper is out and there’s some ideas for the community to consider.
“A community like ours is a good place to vet these new management systems,” Haines said.
Kodiak is an active fishing community with one of the most diverse fleets in the country, Haines said. Past programs — including the Bering Sea crab rationalization, the halibut catch share program, and the rockfish rationalization program in the gulf — can help inform this effort as well, Haines said.
A prior effort at rationalizing the Gulf of Alaska was stopped after the first year of the crab rationalization in 2005 when two-thirds of the fleet was tied up and 1,000 crew positions, many in Kodiak, were lost.
Fishermen from other areas and sectors had their own set of worries.
Peninsula Fisherman’s Coalition Executive Director Beth Stewart spoke to the council on behalf of western Gulf fishermen. The council action only considers the central Gulf.
“We certainly share Kodiak’s concerns and fear of what’s going to be going on with chinook bycatch and halibut bycatch,” Stewart said.
But the association believes that the council can’t mess with one player in the Gulf without adverse affects for the others, she said.
United Fishermen’s Marketing Association Manager Jeff Stephan echoed some of the western Gulf concerns. He said the council’s action could trigger a rush for fishing in other sectors. For instance, there are a lot of unused pot cod permits that could see more use in an effort to establish history.
“It has tremendous impacts for us,” he said. “We don’t want to be the only open fishery.”
The council Advisory Panel, made up of 21 fisheries stakeholders, had also recommended that the council consider a separate but parallel action for western Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet, but the council’s eventual motion said that the program would not modify the overall management of other sectors in the GOA or the central Gulf rockfish program.
Others also asked the council to come up with new ways of considering bycatch.
Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Glenn Reed asked the council to consider some totally new ideas regarding bycatch and the future of the groundfish trawl fleet.
“How would the world look if we looked at that as a mixed stock fishery, and stopped having PSC, stopped having waste in the fishery?” Reed said. “I think it’s worthy of consideration at this time. I mean, why not? Why not look at it that way? We don’t have to just throw a bunch of dead fish away just ‘cause a regulation says we have to. Somebody wrote that, somebody could rewrite that. Somebody could rethink that.”
Bonney said this is an opportunity to find creative solutions to the management challenges.
“Hopefully as we move forward people can think more innovatively,” she said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.