Bering Sea crab fleet buyback details still must be worked out

UNALASKA -- It’s called the Capacity Reduction Program for Bering Sea/ Aleutian Islands Crab Fisheries -- buyback for short. In late December Congress created the $100 million program to reduce the crab fleet. Fishermen say it’s necessary for their survival in a time of slashed crab quotas. It’s good policy, says its sponsor, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

But classic free market purity it’s not, and in a visit to the Aleutian Islands last year, Stevens described a fellow senator’s objection.

"He seriously questioned whether we should use taxpayer money to buy boats back that had been brought into the fleet as the product return had gone up," Stevens said. "He felt that when it went down, that should be part of the risk taking of being an entrepreneur." But buybacks can work, Stevens said.

"I think it will help. I was hoping they’d just be buying permits, and not permits and boats," said Gary Stewart, president of the Alaska Marketing Association, which negotiates prices for Bering Sea crab fishermen. "If we could have just bought permits, we could have got a lot more boats out of the fleet. That way, we’d get a lot more bang for our buck."

"It will let a lot of boats get out of the business without going into bankruptcy, maybe keep their homes. It will reduce the fleet so the boats that stay in the fishery will have a chance of surviving these hard times," said Aleutian Lady owner Rick Shelford.

Shelford expects lots of interest, at least 75 boats, "more than what the money’s there," exceeding the $100 million. "There are a lot of guys that are in pretty tough shape right now." The $100 million has yet to be appropriated, and $50 million must be repaid to the boats remaining in the fishery. Final approval for the buyback requires a majority vote of the crab fleet. The buyback involves a "reverse auction," with vessels ranked according to catch history. The more crab a boat caught, the more likely it gets bought out.

"Those that appear to remove the most harvesting potential from the fishery for the least amount of money will be accepted," said Phil Smith of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

Currently 330 boats are among the "closed class" allowed to fish Bering Sea crab, Smith said. But as to who is eligible for the buyback is unclear. One set of qualifying dates is based on a 1998 action of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that never became federal law, he said.

"The statute itself is internally inconsistent and contradictory," regarding buyback eligibility, said Smith, adding that the agency’s legal staff is reviewing that issue.

"Congress passed it in December, and put it in NMFS’ lap" to work out the details, said Gretchen Harrington of the National Marine Fisheries Service, in Juneau. "We’ve only had one month to try to create this whole program. We want to create a good program, and that takes time."

Still undetermined is if retired crab boats could continue in their summer work as salmon tenders, transporting fish from small catcher boats to processing plants.

"That question was asked by a fisherman, and we haven’t figured out the answer. We don’t think so," Harrington said.

"The fishing history of that vessel evaporates, and the fishery endorsement is voided. They can’t be used in a commercial fishery. I guess you could use them to run tourists out to watch whales," Smith said. Other possibilities mentioned by fishermen include yachts and research vessels, although the fuel consumption might be a bit much for a pleasure craft.

The buyback program is being developed by NMFS staff at the agency’s Silver Spring, Md. headquarters, including some of the same people who devised East Coast boat buyback programs, Smith said. The buyback law sets a May 1 deadline for final regulations.

"It’s a complex issue. There’s many things that have to be addressed, but at least it’s a start," said crab fisherman Larry Hendricks, who sees individual quotas as the logical next step. The buyback legislation requires a study of various rationalization schemes, including cooperatives and quotas for fishermen, processors and communities.

Jim Paulin can be reached at ([email protected]).

02/24/2001 - 8:00pm