Alaska trawlers furious about Walker’s council nominations

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comment from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.

Two months after a heated meeting, trawlers are again accusing Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten of short-changing their industry. 

Gov. Bill Walker submitted nominations to fill two seats of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on March 9, sending waves of dissatisfaction throughout an industry segment that claims Walker’s administration is forcing it out of the process at the worst time possible.

Walker nominated Buck Laukitis of Homer and Theresa Peterson of Kodiak to replace Duncan Fields and David Long among the 11 voting members of the council, one of eight regional councils established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act to oversee federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce ultimately selects each member, choosing either the governor’s stated preference or from his list of alternates.

Of 11 voting members, six seats are reserved for Alaskans, including the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, currently held by Cotten. The remaining seats are reserved for the fish and game officials from Washington and Oregon, as well as a designated seat for the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region.

Fields has served his maximum of three consecutive, three-year terms. Long only served one term after being appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013.

Since Walker announced the nominations, trawl industry representatives have voiced a steadily building frustration with the his administration’s fisheries policy. 

“There’s a strong anti-trawl message coming from this administration,” said Glenn Reed, executive director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “The two appointees illustrate that really clearly.”

Cotten did not respond to requests for comment before press time, but said on on March 17 that the Washington and Oregon council seats already provide ample represenatation for trawlers, the majority of whom port in the Lower 48, not Alaska. He reiterated his comments from the contentious February meeting, saying that the economic and cultural welfare of Alaska communities is the administration's goal.

"We are trying to look out for the health of coastal communities," he said. 

‘Fair and balanced’

Trawl representatives say they bring in too much seafood to be left completely off the Alaska council delegation.

“Right now, 90 percent of the 5 billion pounds caught off Alaska is caught with trawl gear,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. “Now we have bycatch management tools in front of the council for Gulf of Alaska fisheries, and yet on the Alaska side of the council we don’t have anyone that really understands those fisheries.”

In a release, Walker said his nominations provide “balanced and insightful experience.”

Trawl representatives insist that Walker’s nominations run afoul of the clause of the Magnuson-Stevens Act which calls for “the Secretary, in making appointments under this section, shall, to the extent practicable, ensure a fair and balanced apportionment, on a rotating or other basis, of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries.”

Both Peterson and Laukitis have opposed many policies in recent years supported by the trawl industry, and promoted others in opposition to the industry’s stakeholders.

Most recently, Peterson opposed a proposal to establish rationalization programs in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries favored by the trawl industry during a February council meeting as a member of the Advisory Panel that’s made up of 21 fisheries stakeholders.

Instead, Peterson voted to continue studying a proposal the trawl industry loathes which does not allocate harvest quota.

Peterson said “large scale fishing operations and the processing sector are well represented both on the council and through dedicated participation,” and that she believes small-scale coastal residents need more help.

“Through my years participating in the Council process, seven of them serving as an Advisory Panel member, I find the voice of the small-scale, independent fishing operations to be the most underrepresented group in the process,” said Peterson. “In order to maintain fair and equitable representation on the council we need to have council members who represent coastal community members and understand the challenges of living in remote regions.”

Laukitis does not have experience on the council’s Advisory Panel, but has gone on record during council process opposing trawl-backed regulatory proposals. In an 2014 Homer News editorial addressing halibut bycatch, Laukitis advocated for deep halibut bycatch cuts for the Bering Sea groundfish trawlers, referring to Clem Tillion, former Gov. Jay Hammond, and former Sen. Ted Stevens as examples of sound fisheries management.

As alternates to Laukitis and Peterson, Walker forwarded Eric Olson, Paul Gronholdt, Linda Behnken, and Art Nelson. None directly represent trawlers or processors.

Screening process

Trawlers claim nominees were chosen based on fealty to a specific vision of Alaska fisheries rather than experience.

John Whiddon, a Kodiak city council member, had applied and was interviewed by Cotten along with Barbara Blake and Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff John Hozey. Whiddon said the interview had two components. One asked a list of basic questions to determine fisheries management experience and familiarity with council process. The second probed for something deeper.

“The second part was how supportive I’d be as a potential candidate of the state’s position towards the various fisheries,” said Whiddon.

Whiddon said Walker’s team seemed to want to engineer the council so that “there wouldn’t be any real strong outliers in the Alaska contingent.”

“It’s obvious the state has a direction they want to go,” said Whiddon.

Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, was interviewed for a council seat.

“It seemed to me they were looking for people who were all going to agree with a particular vision,” she said. “My feeling was, there’s two sides of fish. One is social justice and access and the mantra coming out of fish policy now, and the other side, which is economics. Fishing is about making money. I think they’re looking not so much about the division of return of dollars…but access to opportunities for small boat participants.”

Certain applicants received no interviews at all, including trawler Jason Chandler, Anne Vanderhoeven, and Rebecca Skinner, an attorney and Kodiak Borough co-chair of the Kodiak Fisheries Work Group.

Trawl representatives suspect the timing and reveals what they say is a pattern.

“That’s sort of the way the commissioner is stacking the deck,” said Paddy O’Donnell, Kodiak resident and trawl operator who serves on the council’s Advisory Panel.

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 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, both of whom trawlers describe as “anti-trawl.”

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.

Trawl representation

Trawlers argue their fisheries are the most important part of the Kodiak economy and other coastal economies with fish processing capability.

In Kodiak, groundfish fisheries contribute to a year-round processor workforce, rather than the seasonal employment used by many other processing hubs. In Kodiak, an average of 1,500 employees work in processors per month. In all months except June-August — salmon fishing months — the majority of Kodiak’s processor poundage is delivered by trawl vessels.

More Alaskans fish the Gulf of Alaska federal fisheries than non-Alaskans, though more non-Alaskans use trawl gear.

According to permit data from the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region, twice as many Alaskans fish groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska than do non-residents — which includes pollock, Pacific cod, and flatfish.

NOAA federal permit manager Tracy Buck clarified that the agency does not monitor permits according to resident status, exactly. Rather, each permit is attached to a physical address; 65 percent of groundfish permits are attached to an Alaska address.

Gulf of Alaska groundfish can be harvested by trawl or non-trawl gear, though the majority of the catch is taken by trawl.

There are 1,209 limited license permits, or LLPs, for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska: 1,062 non-trawl LLPs and 152 trawl LLPs.

The numbers favor Alaska addresses, but the difference between trawl and non-trawl residency speaks to the nature of fisheries.

Of the non-trawl permits, a majority of 70 percent trace back to Alaska addresses while just a third of the trawl LLPs have an Alaska address.

Non-trawl permits include longline and pot vessels — typically smaller than trawl vessels with a substantially lower barrier to entry where cost is concerned. Larger and more expensive trawlers have the ability to move between Pacific Northwest and Alaska waters, leaving homeport in Seattle or Portland to prosecute groundfish in the Gulf.

04/13/2016 - 3:36pm