Cotten, council get earful from trawlers

  • North Pacific Fishery Management Council members Simon Kinneen, left, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten discuss the merits of a Gulf of Alaska bycatch reduction plan on Feb. 6 in Portland, Ore. The plan, Alternative 3 in the council’s package, was intensely opposed by Gulf of Alaska ground fish trawlers during the council’s meeting. Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC

PORTLAND, Ore. — An administrative push to keep fishing jobs in coastal communities is butting heads with the trawl industry claiming they provide the jobs in the first place.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will continue studying a bycatch reduction plan unpopular with Gulf of Alaska trawlers. The option, known as Alternative 3, would allocate individual bycatch caps to groundfish vessels in the Gulf of Alaska rather than the target species.

The council is making changes at the fleet’s insistence. The council passed a series of chinook salmon bycatch limits and halibut bycatch reductions in 2011 and 2012, leading to bycatch-related shutdowns of the trawl fleet.

Following a two-day public comment marathon that spilled into an impromptu town hall-style meeting, the council approved an amended version of the original alternative.

The amended Alternative 3 narrowly passed the council 6-5 along the state lines. All six Alaska members voted in favor of including the alternative, while members from Washington, Oregon, and the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region voted against it.

Even with changes, trawl industry representatives say Alternative 3 is the short route to crippling the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fleet.

“If the goal of the council is to hamstring the trawl industry, then Alternative 3 it is,” said Bob Krueger, executive director of Alaska Whitefish Trawlers.

Trawlers say the council process is skewed towards small boat Alaska interests, a disservice in their eyes, as the fishery is federal. Council members said that may be true, but Alaska plays the biggest role in the North Pacific.

“The majority of the people that have LLPs (limited license permits) now don’t even live in Alaska,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner and council member Sam Cotten. “But the fishery is prosecuted from Alaska ports. The fish are brought to Alaska harbors. The fish are processed in Alaska communities. There are people who live in these towns who are affected by fishery management plans. We’re gonna listen to them, too.”

After the vote, trawl industry stakeholders clustered together to vent against what they said was harmful anti-trawl rhetoric that will shoot Alaska in the foot.

“All my boats that are ported in Kodiak deliver to Kodiak for decades,” said Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative. “They spend money in Kodiak. The fish is being processed in Kodiak. They’re buying groceries and fuel in Kodiak, and getting services in Kodiak. We’re as much a part of that economy as someone who was born and lives in Kodiak. To discriminate against us…harms Alaskans.”

Cotten said the trawlers are right; Alaska interests, in his mind, are the council’s top priority.

“If not us, then who will protect the economic interests of Alaska?” he said.

Alternative 3

Roughly 85 percent of North Pacific groundfish fisheries are rationalized. A big chunk of the remainder is in the Gulf of Alaska.

Rationalization assigns blocks of fish quota to individual vessels or to fishing cooperatives. Managers often pinpoint rationalization as the best way to ensure safety and to minimize bycatch; vessels with their own quota can harvest at their leisure instead of the derby style fisheries of the past, thus allowing more time to avoid prohibited species like chinook salmon and halibut.

Coastal communities, however, have a bad aftertaste of some rationalization programs. When the council rationalized Bering Sea crab, the number of boats in the crab fleet shrank by two-thirds in one season and eliminated 1,000 crew jobs.

Though not to the dramatic level as crab, halibut rationalization also produced some consolidation of vessels and harvest quota. Quota is also extremely expensive, which has limited the ability of new entrants to join the fisheries.

In state fisheries, the Alaska limited entry permit system saw many rural permits migrate to urban areas.

 “Those that live in the community are very concerned about duplicating and magnifying the negative experiences we’ve had in the past,” said council member Duncan Fields. “Our experiences create a very clear philosophical demarcation on the council.”

Alternative 3 creates an individual quota system for bycatch, rather than for the target species. Trawlers say this does nothing to end the race for fish, as vessels will simply fish up to their individual bycatch limit instead of the fleetwide limit.

Trawlers understand the fears of consolidation, but say their fishery isn’t analogous to crab or halibut. Groundfish are low-price, high-volume product not subject to the same harvesting or market structure as the higher-end seafood products. As evidence, they point to the Gulf rockfish fishery, which produced little consolidation when it was rationalized in 2007.

Fewer than 40 trawlers currently operate in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery, but potentially as few as 10 could harvest the whole quota. Fields said this is exactly the kind of consolidation Alternative 3 wants to avoid.

Trawlers say an existing option, Alternative 2, already incorporates certain guarantees for preventing consolidation, including vessel usage caps. To prevent the kind of consolidation of the crab or halibut, each vessel would be restricted to hold no more than 1 or 3 percent of the total target quota – allowing for increased efficiency but preventing the fleet from shrinking below about 25 vessels.

Among other concerns, trawlers also say Alternative 3 doesn’t recognize individual vessels’ or cooperatives’ historical take of prohibited species catch, or PSC, or of target species; they worry a PSC-only allocation will be a kind of redistribution of wealth to those entrants without their lengthy investment of time and finances.

To fix this, Cotten amended the final Alternative 3 to recognize dependency, but not history, which trawlers said “molests” their concerns. Only recognizing dependency without history, they say, goes against the tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which states the council must make allocations with history as a consideration.

Cotten put in a concession to history: any allocation of history would use only the historical share from the year before. Trawlers say one year of bad fishing shouldn’t guarantee another.

Both trawlers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, oppose Alternative 3, believing it doesn’t address the stated goal to make fisheries safer and lower bycatch. Merely adding it to the discussion, they said, will cost crucial time for the trawl fleet, which has had two bycatch-related shutdowns already and anticipates more.

NMFS Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill, who sits in place of Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger on Gulf-related matters because Balsigers’s wife Heather McCarty works for the City and Borough of Kodiak on fisheries matters, voted against Alternative 3 and said analyzing the option will add up to a year’s more time to a final plan’s passage.

Stakeholder input

Trawlers heatedly testified against moving Alternative 3 forward, both in the Advisory Panel and in front of council. The AP, a group of 21 stakeholders who provide input to the council, almost passed a recommendation to the council to drop Alternative 3, but the motion failed on a 9-12 vote.

 Virtually everyone affiliated with a trawl operation spoke against the option, most with the same criticism: only allocating bycatch caps will not encourage trawlers to slow their operations and avoid prohibited species.

“I feel that time is the most effective and powerful tool to reduce bycatch,” said trawl captain Jason Chandler. “If only PSC is reduced, the fleet will continue to race upwards to the limit. I can’t honestly believe we’re even talking about a program that doesn’t take out the race for fish.”

Most public comment was against the alternate with a few notable exceptions. Those who supported it spoke to the alternative’s ultimate goal: boosting coastal community stake in the fishery.

“Everyone has figured out that owning a public resource is a really groovy tool,” said Alexus Kwachka, a Kodiak fisherman and AP member. “I don’t know if Alternative 3 would work, but I think it has merits to consider. I think there has to be some kind of happy medium. If we do it wrong in the Gulf, we wipe out other businesses.”

Trawlers organized a voluntary stand down from Feb. 3-6 in order to testify and show solidarity. The masses hinted that the stand down was taken seriously, but Alaska council members probed to find out if the stand down’s timing was too convenient.

Prior to the council meeting, pollock prices pushed trawlers to target non-pollock fish in the Gulf instead, leading to a halibut bycatch spike of 100 metric tons, or about 242,000 pounds, over the same period last year and spurring trawlers to stop targeting non-pollock species such as Pacific cod.

Accounts for when the trawlers decided to stand down to participate in the council meeting differed; some said last year, others said earlier in January.

“Are their any other reasons you would stand down,” asked Cotten, “perhaps because of bycatch?”

Trawlers acknowledged the halibut bycatch spike, but said the two stand downs were purely coincidental.

“I just want to point at that that agreement was entered prior to the beginning of our fishing season,” said Jason Chandler, a trawl captain.

Alaska council members seemed to think the much-publicized stand downs skewed reality. There’s a critical distinction, they said, between the largely Seattle-based trawl industry and the actual residents of Gulf of Alaska towns like Kodiak, Sand Point, and King Cove.

Few such residents testified before council or wrote letters of support. Trawlers, meanwhile, resented the implication that they aren’t community members, too.

The council’s Advisory Panel wrote in its recommendation that “no industry” voiced any support for the alternative, earning a scolding tone from council member Duncan Fields.

“Is the AP of the opinion that (supporting) written comments do not count as stakeholder input?” Fields asked AP co-chair Art Nelson.

The letter Fields referred to came from the Sitka-based Boat Company, which describes itself as a “non-profit educational organization offering luxury eco-cruises through Southeast Alaska.” Of the 20-odd letters submitted to council, the Boat Company alone supported Alternative 3. The remaining letters came from processors, trawl captains and crew, or from industry groups.

Some Kodiak residents within the council process had argued a similar point in the AP discussion preceding the council’s. Certain “community protections,” they said, are merely protections for trawlers and processors.

“I consider myself a stakeholder as a resident of the community of Kodiak,” said Theresa Peterson. “I don’t see stakeholders as being limited to the stakeholders in the trawl industry. Granted, people not directly represented in the trawl industry have not shown up en masse, but I feel like the state was responsive to a lot of community concerns.”

The council’s public comment period — spanning two days with more than 50 speaking — was highly charged, and the Benson Hotel’s conference room temperature rose. The sheer volume of public comment spilled into an impromptu town hall-style meeting with Cotten. Trawlers crowded the commissioner and some had trouble keeping voices below an on-deck volume.

Paddy O’Donnell, a Kodiak resident and trawl owner who introduced the motion to scrub Alternative 3 out of the package as an Advisory Panel member, told Cotten he hates being treated as a second class citizen. Fixed gear fishermen, he raged in a brogue-soaked shout, are just as important to the Alaska economy — and the Alaska identity — as the more romanticized hook and line fisheries.

“I’m branded because I’m a trawler. I’ve lived in Alaska for 26 years, longer than I ever lived in Ireland,” said O’Donnell. “I’ve got two kids going to school there. You are throwing out the future of my livelihood, the future of my kids, the future of the community of Kodiak.”

Fishy politics

Trawlers accuse the North Pacific council of letting itself be dominated by Gov. Bill Walker’s interests through Cotten, and weren’t shy about telling Cotten they felt betrayed by Alternative 3.

“You, as commissioner to the State of Alaska, you’ve got a job to do, but you’re throwing me under the bus,” said O’Donnell. “You’re the guy we look up to, to protect us. You’re our man in Juneau, and you need to look after us.”

Council members don’t necessarily disagree that the process is weighted for Alaskans; that’s the way it’s supposed to be, they said. Alaska was given the majority of the voting seats on the North Pacific council when the eight regional councils were created by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Cotten introduced Alternative 3 in October 2015. Former commissioner Cora Campbell, who Cotten replaced following Walker’s election, had forwarded Alternative 2 to the council the year before. Trawlers support Alternative 2, which they said is still flawed but had the benefit of two years of substantial public comment.

Trawlers said the council discriminates against them. The decision to move Alternative 3, opponents said, demonstrates an Alaska-stacked, philosophically anti-trawl council process. Cotten, they said, controls the majority of Alaska votes and has rearranged the council’s Advisory Panel to reflect anti-trawl interests.

At its December meeting, the council removed Mitch Kilborn of Kodiak’s International Seafoods of Alaska and Anne Vanderhoeven, fisheries quota manager for Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., a Community Development Quota, or CDQ, group.

In place, the council appointed Ben Stevens of the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Angel Drobnica of the Aleutians Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, another CDQ group.

Before the Portland meeting, the AP changed leadership roles, voting to replace Ruth Christiansen with Ernie Weiss of Aleutians East Borough as chair, with co-chairs Matt Upton from U.S. Seafoods and Art Nelson from Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. 

Only eight of the 21 AP seats come from outside Alaska.

“This meeting just underlined how dysfunctional the council is becoming,” said Krueger. “People are not voting the way they really feel. We have council members up for reappointment. Voting contrary to the wishes of the commissioner would end any hope of being reappointed.”

Council members disagree that the council bears hatred for trawl interests.

Fields said the trawlers, more than any other group, began working the council process in 1976. The appearance of anti-trawler bias through increased regulation is more an example of long-absent equity between North Pacific user groups and stakeholders than some kind of targeted attack.

“They structured fisheries that generally advantaged the trawl fleet and perhaps disadvantaged others,” said Fields. “There is a perspective on the council that the trawl fleet needs to be regulated in ways that minimize impact to other stakeholders.”

Clem Tillion, a lobbyist for the city of Adak and Alaska political fixture, said the trawlers simply don’t like the taste of sour grapes.

“They had everything going their way under (former Gov. Sean) Parnell,” he said. “Well, Walker won, and they’re having trouble facing up to that.”

Walker’s limited involvement with fisheries has typically been in favor of Upper Cook inlet commercial fishing interests. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of coastal and rural economies dependent on fishing.

Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, submitted a letter to Walker on Feb. 5 and passed copies around to council members during public comment.

“Your Administration’s proposal jeopardizes these benefits and yet does nothing to better manage bycatch and improve conservation,” the letter reads. “There is absolutely no support for this approach by the current participants in the fishery.”

Cotten said Walker is aware of the council’s actions and supports them. Alternative 3 hits the main points of Walker’s objectives for Alaska fisheries, he said: the health of coastal communities and fish-first management.

Other items

The Gulf of Alaska bycatch issue took the majority of council’s time, but it also revisited several ongoing issues peripheral to halibut fisheries.

Like the Gulf, the Limited Access Trawl Sector yellowfin sole fishery in the Bering Sea is not rationalized. New entrants have been coming into the fishery, leading to both economic concerns for the historical participants and to halibut bycatch concerns – yellowfin sole is one of the “dirtiest” fisheries for halibut bycatch, and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands yellowfin grounds are nurseries for halibut. 

The council’s discussion paper examined possibly closing off the fishery to new entrants.

For trawl vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the council passed a motion that allows vessel in the partial observer category to voluntarily opt into full coverage.

Also in the coverage category, a discussion paper examined the possibility of putting observers on tender vessels, which deliver fish from offshore vessels to onshore processors. The council will continue to review observer data and move forward a rule for tenders to file landings reports.

The council’s next meeting will be held in Anchorage from April 4-12, where it is tentatively slated to hold an initial review of halibut Recreational Quota Entities, a discussion paper of salmon genetics, and another review of the ongoing halibut management framework.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

02/10/2016 - 2:59pm