Prices, lawsuit over cod allocation keep Adak plant closed
For the second year running, Adak fishermen aren’t going after the pollock quota they’ve spent more than a decade trying to fish, claiming to need a more stable cod supply that’s now the subject of a lawsuit before they can make processing financially viable.
The easing of some fishing restrictions revolving around Stellar sea lion protections in 2015 allowed the Aleut Corp., one of 12 Alaska Native regional corporations, to begin harvesting its pollock allocation of 15,500 metric tons.
Prior to the changes, all or a portion of the Aleut Corp. allocation was typically split up each year within the Bering Sea fishery because of the Stellar sea lion rules that would have otherwise prevented its harvest.
Ten percent of the 19,000 metric ton allocation for the Aleutians subarea harvest is classified as Community Development Quota, or 1,900 metric tons, and reserved for Adak.
The Adak Cod Cooperative owned the pollock quota and leased the processing plant at Adak from Aleut Corp until the state of Alaska revoked its business license. On Feb. 3, with it clear the 1,900 mt issued to Adak would go unharvested, the allocation was shifted into the Bering Sea pollock fishery as it always has been.
According to Clem Tillion, a lobbyist for the city of Adak, the pollock aren’t worth going after.
“They’re not fishing the quota because no one has wanted it,” said Tillion. “Nobody’s looking for any new resource. Pollock is almost a worthless product at this point.”
Pollock isn’t a moneymaker in 2017. Prices are at their lowest point in a decade for the fish and likely to fall even further as the 2017 season continues, according to market sources.
Adak’s processing facility is only recently up and operable, having undergone ownership changes after Icicle sold the plant in 2013 and a fire that required expensive renovation.
Tillion said the processor is ready to accept pollock deliveries, but likely won’t do so until it can bring in Pacific cod as well, which is faring better in terms of price and could subsidize the less cost-effective pollock.
Cod fishermen, however, are now suing to stop a recent requirement they deliver tons of their harvest to Adak.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight councils governing federal fisheries, guaranteed a minimum of 5,000 metric tons of Pacific cod each year to be delivered to any shoreside processor west of 170 degrees longitude.
Groundfish trawlers objected to the motion when it was passed in September 2015. They said council’s action is an illegal set aside that “unlawfully and arbitrarily restricts at-sea processing and fishing by vessels that target Pacific cod in the ‘directed’ fishery,” according to court filings.
In December 2016, Groundfish Forum, an industry group of groundfish trawlers, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker over the council’s decision, along with several other companies.
“Although the Final Rule states that delivery pursuant to the set aside may be to any shoreside processor located on land west of 170 degrees west longitude in the Aleutian Islands, there are only two existing processors in that area, located in Adak and Atka, Alaska, neither of which is currently open for processing Pacific cod,” reads the lawsuit. “The Atka facility has never received and processed cod from the Aleutian Islands directed fishery, and the Adak facility has only been periodically operational over the last decade.
“Neither plant processed cod during the 2015 and 2016 fishing years. On information and belief, neither plant intends to process cod during the 2017 fishing year.”
Indeed, it appears that the Adak plant is waiting until the case is resolved before it starts taking either pollock or cod.
“If we win, and I think we will, then we might start in the summer,” Tillion said. “We won’t know ‘til June, I’m guessing.”
Even in the case that Adak hangs onto its shoreside cod delivery requirements, Tillion said there’s no guarantee they’ll fish the pollock quota — the market will still have to make fishing the quota economical.
The decision to hold off fishing is somewhat surprising, considering the lengths Adak has gone through to get pollock quota in the first place. The Aleutian town has been on the wrong side of regulations, markets and government movements for the last half century.
The U.S. Navy was the town’s income for half a century until it withdrew in 1999, leaving Adak without much revenue stream.
Similar coastal towns within 50 miles of the coast are issued Community Development Quota amounting to 10 percent of all Bering Sea harvests, but the program began in 1991 when Adak was still a Naval base, so the town received no CDQ quota until the late former Sen. Ted Stevens managed to do it legislatively in 2004.
Steller sea lion protections put in place after 2004 made the quota practically useless and the 1,900 metric tons were reallocated to the Bering Sea each year.
The State of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued over an expansion of the fishing closures in 2010, and a federal judge ruled in 2012 that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act in the manner it implemented the restrictions designed to protect food sources for the endangered species.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council then recrafted the Stellar sea lion rules that have allowed the Aleutians quota to be fished, but that hasn’t yet helped Adak harvest its allocation.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]