Bering Sea cod conflict brewing between on and offshore buyers

“Cod Alley” is getting crowded, and some fishermen want to limit the boats in the narrow congested fishing area in the Bering Sea.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking at changes, including restricting flatfish factory trawlers from buying cod offshore.

The Pacific Seafood Processors Association is pushing for restrictions on factory trawlers to protect its members’ shore plants in Unalaska, Akutan, King Cove and Sand Point.

According to the PSPA’s Nicole Kimball, seven factory trawlers bought cod from 17 catcher boats in 2017, up from just one factory trawler that traditionally participated in prior years. The Amendment 80 factory trawlers act as motherships, processing but not catching the Pacific cod.

“The share delivered to motherships increased from 3.3 percent in 2016 to 12.7 percent in 2017, while shoreside processors had a reciprocal decline. This is a meaningful shift. At this point it is open-ended, and there is nothing to prevent future growth in this activity,” Kimball testified at the council’s December meeting in Anchorage.

Local government representatives shared the shoreplants’ concerns, citing a loss of tax revenues needed for schools and other services. On a smaller scale, it’s reminiscent of the inshore-offshore battle in the pollock fishery about 20 years ago.

“This is a big deal,” said Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty. “It looks like we’ve got trouble coming down the road again.”

Cod is Unalaska’s second-most important product, behind pollock, he said.

From 2013 to mid 2017, Kelty said Pacific cod landings brought in $4.8 million in taxes to Unalaska-Dutch Harbor. That includes $1.9 million in local sales taxes, and $2.9 million in state business taxes shared with the city. The average price-per-pound averaged between 24 cents in 2015, to a high of 33 cents in 2014, according to Kelty’s figures. The most recent price was 31 cents per pound.

Ernie Weiss, the natural resources director of the Aleutians East Borough, said he wanted every pound of fish to cross the docks in the borough, which includes King Cove, Akutan, Sand Point, and False Pass.

“We fully support the onshore processing of Bering Sea Pacific cod,” Weiss testified.

The Amendment 80 fleet comprises the bottom-trawl factory trawlers that don’t target pollock, but instead net sole, perch, and Atka mackerel.

Defenders of the offshore buyers included Jim Stone, owner of the catcher vessel Ocean Hunter.

“Motherships offer another market,” he said, saying the onshore sector is dominated by three major buyers.

Two of the cod-buying factory trawlers are owned by Fisherman’s Finest, and company official Annika Saltman said they help preserve a competitive market. One catcher vessel temporarily delivered to a mothership only because a shoreplant’s cod facility was closed for renovations, but will return to the onshore sector, Saltman testified.

Kimball said the shoreplants also provide a competitive cod market. Trident Seafoods’ Joe Plesha complained the rationalized Amendment 80 fleet “disrupts other fisheries” by buying cod offshore.

Various ideas were floated for limiting catcher vessel participation in the Bering Sea cod fishery, including controversial catch shares or individual fishing quotas. Weiss said he was “not a big fan” of catch shares.

IFQs are not among the alternatives the council will consider next year. The purpose and need statement, approved unanimously, includes limiting cod trawling to vessels actually fishing in various years between 2010 and 2017.

Essentially, this would create a limited entry program within a limited entry program. Bering Sea cod fishing is already limited to boats with fishing licenses. Some of those boats don’t usually participate, but can when prices are high or stocks are low in their usual fisheries.

Brent Paine, the executive director of United Catcher Boats, said something needs to be done to regulate fishing in the congested area with increasingly shorter seasons. He predicted a three-week season in 2018.

“This is the last unrationalized fishery in the eastern Bering Sea,” Paine said. “If you don’t do anything, we’re all going to be losers.”

However, Paine said his group is not opposed to the Amendment 80 fleet buying cod offshore.

While the shoreplants are actively opposed, the factory trawler fleet’s trade association, Groundfish Forum, is staying out of the fish fight. Executive Director Chris Woodley said his members don’t all agree on the issue, so the group is neutral.

The Forum represents five companies owning about 17 factory trawlers.

The crowded cod fishing grounds known as “Cod Alley” and the “Breadline” are located off the northern coast of Unimak Island. Paine said the active fishing area is 1.5 miles long by 40 miles wide.

Cod fisherman Steve Beard of the fishing vessel Golden Pisces said his revenues are down 50 percent in the past two years, because of the competition.

“I don’t want to be a Walmart greeter. I just want to fish cod,” Beard said.

His passion for cod was acknowledged by two council advisory panel members, Jerry Downing and Sinclair Wilt, who each said he’s known as the “Codfather.”

Twice, Beard said he’s entangled his fishing gear with other vessels. He called on the federal regulators to “stop the Olympic-style fishery that’s going on, and try to control it.”

“It’s turning into a parking lot,” said council member Craig Cross.

Fisherman Dan Martin of the trawler Commodore described the fishery as chaotic. But one council advisory panel member accepts chaos.

“Chaos in the fishery, that’s competitive fishing,” said Patrick O’Donnell.

After much discussion, the council established “a control date of Dec. 31, 2017 that may be used as a reference date for a future management action to limit catcher processors from acting as motherships in the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands trawl catcher vessel Pacific cod fishery.”

Jim Paulin can be reached at [email protected].

12/20/2017 - 10:54am