Pacific cod fishermen in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, one of the last remaining unrationalized federal fisheries in Alaska, may finally have to cross that bridge.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a motion at its meeting Feb. 9 to take action on the Pacific cod fishery, which is facing a number of issues in abundance, processing and participation. Depending on public review and the council’s action at the next several meetings, the Pacific cod fishery could see significant changes to seasons, limits and vessel participation.
The motion hinges around an analysis developed on the trawl catcher vessel fishery and releases Alternatives 1, 2, 3 and 6 for public review separate from the rest. Rationalization, also known as catch shares, refers to a system in which set amounts of the harvest are issued as quotas to various gear and vessel types, typically based on participation history in the fishery.
Halibut and sablefish were the first fisheries to be rationalized in Alaska in the early 1990s, followed by Bering Sea pollock later that decade and Bering Sea crab fisheries in the mid-2000s. Proponents tout the benefits of such programs for ending the dangerous, “derby style” races for fish and curbing bycatch; opponents point to the high cost of entry for newcomers to purchase quota shares, consolidation of effort and the accompanying loss of jobs.
The council’s Advisory Panel, made up of fishing industry stakeholders, unanimously supported the move to release some alternatives sooner, in part because of the urgency of the problems in the fishery. The shortened season was a particularly painful point for many: the 2018 Bering Sea trawl cod season was the shortest in the fishery’s history at just 13 days.
“The (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands) trawl catcher vessel Pacific cod fishery is facing multiple issues simultaneously that are negatively impacting the sustained viability and rational prosecution of the fishery for all its participants,” the council motion states. “These factors include: decreasing Pacific cod TACs (total allowable catch), an increase in the number of participating LLP licenses, the potential for additional new participants, a race among existing participants (often in unsafe conditions), and an increasingly shortened season.”
Pacific cod are managed by both the state and the federal government, with some fisheries allowed in state waters. In recent years, participation has been growing, both in the state and federal fisheries.
The state Board of Fisheries recently created a new cod fishery for pot gear for small vessels near Dutch Harbor, gaining record-high participation in the fishery this January.
Pacific cod is a valuable fishery in Alaska. Most of that value goes to out-of-state residents. In 2016, $76 million in ex-vessel value went to Alaska residents; $117.7 million went to out-of-state residents, according to a December 2017 report to the council.
The harvest of Pacific cod was cut by 80 percent in the Gulf of Alaska last year, and by nearly half in the Bering Sea. That’s attracting more boats to the open access state waters fishery, where the harvest comes out of the overall TAC.
In its report, the Advisory Panel also pointed to an increase in mother-shipping by catcher-processors in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, pushing down shoreside processing and thus tax revenue for the Bering Sea communities. Those communities have long depended on the economic base provided by shore-based processors to sustain economies in incredibly remote, meteorologically hostile areas.
During the council’s hearing, more than a dozen stakeholders offered testimony in person and by letter, and one by voicemail. Most testified in favor of the Advisory Panel’s motion and spoke about the danger of the fishery without changing the race for fish and the impact of the painfully short season this year.
“Unfortunately, the season was so short this year that it allows me to be here to testify,” said Chris Cooper, who fishes on the F/V Perseverance. “…One thing that has not changed is our participation and commitment in this fishery. In the past, we’ve relied on the fishery for as much as half of our income … We’ve watched a two-and-a-half month to three-month season go down to under two weeks this year. To say that we’ve been directly affected by this change is an understatement.”
The halibut bycatch is a perpetual problem for the trawl fisheries. The Pacific cod fishery, like other groundfish fisheries, have bycatch caps after which the fishery will close to protect non-target stocks.
Brent Paine, the executive director of stakeholder group United Catcher Boats, said the halibut are victims of the race for fish; when fishermen are racing against the clock, they may not move to a new fishing area when they encounter large numbers of halibut in the bycatch.
“In a 15-day fishery where these boats are racing for fish, you can’t exclude halibut bycatch. It doesn’t work,” he said. “We don’t like to compete. We can rationalize this fishery … if you just look at a catch share program.”
The areas included in the fishery are often subject to poor weather, and with a breakneck race for fish before the managers close it, safety can go out the window.
“The cod fishery has turned into a dangerous, irrational fishery recently here,” said Robert Smith, who said he owns and operates a trawler for cod and pollock. “We need to move forward with some kind of a rationalization program. The safety sometimes gets overlooked here. In these nice, warm rooms and stuff, I wish we could somehow convey how bad this weather can be up there at times.”
Opposition came from the floating catcher-processors, who said implementing the rules suggested by the advisory panel would push them out of the area. Changing the rules on mothership deliveries would upset a large part of the fishery, said Matt Upton, representing U.S. Seafoods.
“If you change it on us now, it’s basically jeopardizing our entire business operation,” he said. “We support the AP motion — it’s a wide range of alternatives for you to consider.”
Shoreside processors said it’s important for the their sector to have a fair shot, as they support the communities that often depend on the economic support of the processors. Nicole Kimball, representing the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said the council motion should not affect the Amendment 80 fleet, either, which is a group of Seattle-based groundfish catcher-processors.
The council batted amendments back and forth but ultimately unanimously supported releasing the separated alternatives of the analysis. Council member Andy Mezirow said he hoped the federal process would not bog down the council’s ability to make progress on the changes before the next Pacific cod season, based on the concerns the members heard.
“Hopefully, even though our schedule Is fairly jammed up here … hopefully in the three-meeting outlook we can get this moving,” he said.
Council member Craig Cross encouraged members of the public to begin meeting and looking at the alternatives. Unlike other council actions, which start with an abstract discussion paper, this is further along in the process, he said.
“I think this is further along and I think the public should understand that this is further along than a discussion paper, and it has intent,” he said.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]