Council convenes in Kodiak with Gulf catch shares in focus
Editor's note: this article has beeen updated to reflect that CFAs were part of council's considerations since 2014, not recently introduced as in an earlier article version.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Kodiak from June 6-14 to hear a discussion paper that has enraged the trawl industry since late 2015.
Two proposals are engineered to prevent harmful impacts such as the job losses and high cost of entry that have occurred under previous such programs in halibut and crab.
This is an official state position, and the North Pacific council holds a six-member majority of the 11-member body that governs federal Alaska waters.
Gov. Bill Walker’s administration prioritizes coastal communities’ economic prospects during the state’s oil-driven financial calamity. Part of that stance concerns keeping the fishing industry, the state’s largest private employer, in Alaskan fishermen’s hands.
“The greatest challenge facing fishery managers and communities to date has been how to adequately protect communities and working fishermen from the effects of fisheries privatization, notably excessive consolidation and concentration of fishing privileges, crew job loss, rising entry costs, absentee ownership of quota and high leasing fees, and the flight of fishing rights and wealth from fishery dependent communities,” the council’s discussion paper reads. “Collectively, these impacts are altering and in some cases severing the connection between Alaska coastal communities and fisheries.”
For years, the council has mulled over a regulations to install catch shares in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. Mainly trawlers go after this fishery, which includes pollock, a midwater fish, and species such as Pacific cod and arrowtooth flounder, which are bottom, or pelagic, fish.
Catch shares are a form of rationalization that can allocate fishing privileges for both direct harvest and bycatch to individual fishermen, or groups of fishermen through cooperatives.
Fisheries managers say these systems slow the so-called “race for fish” — the old-school derby fisheries that contribute to depleted stocks and dangerous conditions that inspired the title of the popular show Deadliest Catch. Catch share programs have also been shown to reduce bycatch, which includes prohibited species catch such as salmon or halibut taken by trawlers or sub-legal size species that cannot be retained known as regulatory discards.
Bycatch is hot topic in Alaska as two iconic species, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut, have suffered decline in recent years either in numbers in the case of salmon or legal-sized fish in the case of halibut.
Most North Pacific fisheries already have some form of catch share system. The Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery is one of the last remaining without one.
Gulf trawlers have fought one regulatory option since October 2015 when it was first introduced by Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Sam Cotten. The option, known as Alternative 3, would give individual fishermen or groups of fishermen bycatch quota instead of target species quota.
Trawlers say this does nothing to slow the race for fish, and will virtually guarantee that fishermen use every available pound of bycatch.
The trawl industry feels slighted by the alternative and mistreated by an administration it believes unfairly demonizes the gear type. Trawl captains and crew traveled en masse to the council’s February meeting Portland to object.
Trawlers also vociferously objected to Walker’s appointments of Buck Laukitis and Theresa Peterson to the council as members they believe embody an anti-trawl bias.
As a kind of booster, the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association and Groundfish Data Bank — Kodiak’s main trawl industry groups — will hold a trawler appreciation parade and festival on the city’s docks during the council’s June meeting.
Alternative 3’s supporters argue the council should at least consider the plan before it moves to more vigorous economic impact analysis. Catch shares, they say, will consolidate the Gulf’s groundfish into only the trawl fleet and disenfranchise other fishermen.
In Kodiak, cost of entry into fisheries has risen, and local participation has fallen, according to council studies. 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.
Alternative 4 wants to try a kind of community protection. It would install a catch share system for both target and non-target species, but give the share to non-profit entities representing entire communities instead of directly to industry.
“A community allocation provides a clear mechanism to retain local access and protect coastal communities by bolstering locally based vessels and locally based ownership through affordable access to more quota,” reads the paper.
The Community Fishery Association, or CFA, would function like a non-profit, complete with governing board and executive director.
To get quota, each CFA would have to submit a community sustainability plan to a larger board of directors. Elected borough members from Central and Western Gulf areas would comprise this board along with fishing industry representatives.
To qualify as a CFA, a community must be adjacent to saltwater located within the Western, Central, or West Yakutat regulatory areas of the GOA coast of the North Pacific Ocean, have a population of less than 6,500 as of the year 2000, consist of residents having any Gulf groundfish commercial permit and/or fishing or processing activity as documented by CFEC.
The CFAs harvesters would have to join a fishing cooperative.
As a fitting preamble, the council’s other main agenda item will review the 10-year mark since the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery was rationalized.
The review details the extent of consolidation, which has continued since the plan’s last review in 2011. 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.
“Catcher vessel consolidation has continued,” reads the report’s summary. “As shown, the number of vessels decreased in every region, while the direction of change in percentage of vessels varied by region.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]