KODIAK — Many words created few changes to the Gulf of Alaska bycatch reduction package the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is pondering.
At its June meeting in Kodiak, the council held another session dedicated to the plan, which would enact one of several options aimed at reducing the amount of halibut and chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery.
Groundfish includes pollock and non-pelagic species such as Pacific cod, Arrowtooth flounder and rockfish.
Council member and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten also added an “overarching goals and objectives” section to the plan, intended as guidance along with the existing purpose and needs statement.
The council moved three alternatives into a public scoping process but before making adjustments to alternatives, the overarching goals and objectives debate spurred a two-hour word battle among members that the chair found unproductive.
“Yes, words do matter,” said Dan Hull, a Cordova halibut fisherman and council chairman. “We have wrestled with some specific language. While words matter, we’re spending an awful lot of time on goals and objective, but…the trawl fleet is looking for some meaningful progress on the structure of the program. I’m concerned we get wrapped around the axle so much that we forget about the other elements of this package.”
Cotten and the Alaska council members want more in the management plans than just raw economics. The new language adds a cultural ingredient to the mix.
Not only should the plan reduce bycatch, as the purpose and needs statement says, but should also “promote increased utilization of both target and secondary species while minimizing economic barriers for new participants and limiting harvest privileges.”
The council lingo is meant to protect new entrant fishermen from consolidation and overwhelming entry costs to purchase fishing quota.
Opposing council members from Washington and Oregon felt the new language added too much new focus and detracted from a clear goal to reduce bycatch by the best means available. Only council members Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Roy Hyder of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife voted against the language addition.
Supporters argued that the plan needs to avoid some of the negative results of catch share plans with crab and halibut that caused job losses, fleet consolidation and a high entry cost driven by exorbitant quota prices. Eighty-five percent of North Pacific federal fisheries have some kind of catch share system.
“Management efficiency can’t be our main driver,” Cotten said.
The newly revised options will now head back to council staff for a preliminary analysis of the alternatives’ impacts. The National Marine Fisheries Service will publish a public scoping document in the Federal Register on the new alternatives and objectives and goals statement.
The council will take action as needed on the issue at its Anchorage meeting Dec. 6-14.
For Kodiak, a town a built on fish, catch shares are seen as either savior or slayer.
The Gulf of Alaska, with Kodiak as its hub, has some of the most diversified fisheries in the state. Groundfish trawlers, halibut longliners, and skiff-sized salmon seiners share Kodiak’s St. Paul and St. Herman harbors.
Alaska and the U.S. government issued 1,179 commercial fishing permits to Kodiak in 2014, with 845 Kodiak resident crew licenses.
Most of Kodiak’s seafood landings value — $41 million in 2014 — comes from groundfish, according to Juneau economics firm McDowell Group, which contracted with the city and borough of Kodiak in 2015 for a study on the community’s fisheries dependence.
The island has 10 active processors, five of which are among the city’s 10 largest employers with more than 1,300 Kodiak resident employees. Together the 10 make more than two-thirds of their revenue from federal fisheries. Of this, 58 percent of the total dockside value comes from federal groundfish.
Kodiak has already seen its fisheries participation shrink.
In Kodiak, cost of entry into fisheries has risen, and local participation has fallen. Between 2000 and 2010, Kodiak’s locally held Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits dropped from 1,646 to 1,279; halibut quota holders from 304 to 224; active crew licenses from 1,263 to 884; and locally owned vessels from 719 to 452.
Much ado about trawling
The trawl industry has hammered Cotten, the leader of the six-member Alaska delegation on the council, over his proposed Alternative 3, which they believe wasn’t thoroughly vetted before he introduced it in October 2015.
In their eyes, the council is playing with untested social experiments while bycatch limit cuts reduce their groundfish harvest.
“We are operating on the edge of disaster in this fishery,” Bob Krueger told the council.
Krueger is executive director of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, a Kodiak-based industry group of groundfish trawlers.
Krueger and Julie Bonney, Kodiak resident and executive director of the processor and trawler group Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, have opposed Cotten’s Alternative 3 because it does not have individual fishing quota; it only assigns bycatch quota.
They and others organized fishing stand-downs, letter-writing campaigns to Gov. Bill Walker’s administration, and during the Kodiak meeting a parade and festival celebrating the trawl industry.
The trawlers are supporting Alternative 2, which would allocate quota for both the directed species and for bycatch.
Processing workers and trawl crew marched through downtown Kodiak sporting signs reading, “Gov. Walker, don’t take our jobs” and “Don’t destroy what you don’t understand.”
Red baseball caps with the words “Make Trawling Great Again” were de rigueur for attendees — even for Duncan Fields, one the most outspoken of the council’s Alternative 3 supporters and critics of catch share programs.
Amid a dockside crowd of hundreds munching free pollock burgers, Fields took his cap off for a charity pie-throwing contest. Heather Mann, executive director of Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, and Joe Bundrant, CEO of Trident, paid a combined $2,500 for the privilege.
NMFS Alaska Region Assistant Administrator and alternate council member Glenn Merrill and Trident legal counsel Joe Plescha donated as well, collectively raising $7,000 for Kodiak’s Brother Francis Shelter.
The festival’s levity somewhat broke a longstanding hostile aura present since the council’s Portland meeting in February, when fuming trawler crew had a shouting contest directed at Cotten following one session.
Cotten appeared to extend an olive branch to Krueger during session, acknowledging the trawl industry’s backlash and asking to work together for an option all stakeholders can live with.
“We do need your help,” said Cotten. “We’re trying to find some way to accommodate our concerns and yours. I’d like to make that offer to you again.”
The raised voices were absent, but the issue remains contentious and raised a crowd. The council blocked days for the one agenda item and still needed overtime to keep schedule.
Breaking roughly in half for and against catch shares, more than 70 people signed up for public testimony, from 20-year-old deckhands in Kodiak Brewing Company hoodies to well-scrubbed CEOs. Some testified as groups, including a Filipino family of processor workers brought in by Bonney who asked the council in broken English not to harm the trawl industry that keeps them working.
“There are fewer and fewer economic opportunities for young people entering the workforce and more and more fish barons who now 100 percent control resources that were once public,” said Robert Carter, a 32-year Kodiak resident who jigs and longlines for cod from his F/V Faith, in speaking against issuing catch shares. “They own them now and forever. They own rights to fish that aren’t even born yet. They get rich while the rest of us work twice as hard for half as much.”
Others supported catch shares as a proven method for bycatch management and regional economic stability.
“The GOA (Gulf of Alaska) is surrounded by catch share plans, based on history in the fishery, that have been overwhelming successful in accomplishing their original goals,” said Tom Evich, owner and operator trawler/seiner based in Sand Point. “The cornerstone of all those plans was to stabilize the economic health of the fishing boats and the processing sector.”
Alternative 3 seeks community protections, but the trawl and processing industries said they already protect the community.
In each of the alternatives, vessel cooperatives would be connected to processor, ensuring that the shoreside plants keep money flowing into coastal towns.
Alternative 2 has options to prohibit any processor from receiving or processing more than 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent of the total target quota.
Alternative 3, in contrast, would only establish regional vessel cooperatives that could deliver to multiple processors. Representatives from the processing sector said Alternative 3 should incorporate some kind of processor linkage.
Regardless of proposed caps, Trident now controls 50 percent of the total groundfish volume in Kodiak after buying Western Alaska Fisheries’ assets from Japan’s Maruha Nichiro in 2014. In the Alternative 2 language, any company that currently processors more than the 10 percent to 30 percent range would be grandfathered into the new program.
Fields asked Trident CEO Bundrant why the council shouldn’t be concerned a single company might cement a 50 percent market share.
Bundrant, who paid $1,250 to squash a chocolate cream pie into Fields’ face night before, said the council shouldn’t be concerned that processor consolidation could hurt Kodiak’s community or the fishing industry.
“I believe we’ve been a leader in looking out for this industry,” said Bundrant. “Think of the contributions and investments we’ve made. We wouldn’t be at 50 percent if we weren’t doing this right, if we weren’t taking care of our employees.”
The alternatives aim 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. Alternative 3 would only create quota for bycatch, not for the target species. The alternatives would handle the quota differently, however.
In traditional catch share programs and Alternative 2, quota would attach to the fishing license itself. The newly amended Alternative 3 will give the bycatch quota to cooperatives instead, theoretically stopping a few persons or vessels from holding several licenses with masses of quota.
The alternatives have some similarities. Both alternatives would require all trawl vessels in the fishery to carry an observer contracted by the NMFS or to have electronic monitoring capability 100 percent of the time. Current observer coverage rates for Gulf vessels are less than 20 percent.
Both would change the four season dates for pollock and cod, and shift more of the quota to the earlier seasons to avoid the halibut caught later in the year.
Both alternatives could reduce the chinook salmon bycatch limit for the GOA pollock fishery by 25 percent, relative to its current cap of 25,000 and proportionate to the Western and Central Gulf areas where it is subdivided.
Both alternatives would also lower halibut bycatch caps for the GOA non-rockfish trawl fishery, relative to the current 1,515-metric ton limit. The council could lower the cap by as much as 25 percent or as little as 10 percent.
Both would encourage vessels to be members of a cooperative with each cooperative linked to an onshore processor.
Both would divide the Gulf PSC limits between catcher processors, which process and catcher vessels.
Catcher vessels in the Central Gulf take the most halibut bycatch, 68 percent of the total bycatch between 2003-15. Because the onshore sector takes this much, a bycatch cap reduction would mean catcher processors would have to improve performance if it wants to keep catching as much groundfish.
“It is expected that the CP sector would need to improve its PSC usage rates in order to harvest GOA groundfish at historical levels under all the proposed options,” reads the paper.
Council staff recommended tight rules from the onset to prevent over-consolidation of the fleet. The Gulf rockfish program — the only catch share program including trawlers in the region — has a vessel use cap of 4 percent that ensures at least 25 vessels will participate in the fishery.
“It is likely better to begin the program with rules that more aggressively prevent consolidation, and loosen the rules as appropriate,” staff wrote in the discussion paper of the alternatives. “Tightening consolidation rules after the fact would be less effective, in part because consolidation will already have occurred.”
Some of the new changes to Alternative 2 strengthen protections against consolidation. Vessels could be forbidden from transferring more than 5 percent to 40 percent of their overall quota, and be prohibited from making any transfers for two years after the program begins.
A third alternative would create either one Gulfwide or two regional Community Fisheries Associations, or CFAs, to hold five percent to 15 percent of the available quota to dole out to qualify license and vessel holders in the community.
The governor would appoint the associations’ board members. Kodiak, Homer, Seward, Whittier, Valdez, Cordova, and Community Quota Entities in the Western and Central Gulf would qualify for membership in the CFA.
The council recognized during the meeting that the CFA structure is only compatible with the catch share program in Alternative 2.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]