Council turns down petition sought to protect Adak processor
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Minor's last name.
The Aleutian Islands won’t be getting an emergency boost in quota for Pacific cod, despite stakeholders’ assertions that the processing plant in Adak needs it to survive the next season.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided not to approve an emergency petition from a group of Aleutian Islands stakeholders at its meeting June 9, instead taking a longer route through a discussion to look at the set-aside options for the area.
The petition had sought an emergency quota set-aside of Pacific cod, separate from the general Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands quota, to help sustain the shore-based plant and thus the community.
Adak, a small community on an island west of Unalaska that once housed a naval base, relies heavily on Pacific cod processing. The community there taxes fishery landings to pay for public services as well. In recent years, the shore-based processors have had to increasingly compete with larger companies’ catcher-processor vessels participating in the Bering Sea Pacific cod fishery.
The fishery has grown as well, and as the fishery is not under rationalization, fishermen have complained of an increasingly dangerous “race for fish” that makes the season shorter and shorter. In spring 2019, the Bering Sea Pacific cod “A” season lasted less than two weeks.
Since 2016, the Aleutian Islands area has had a leg-up in the fishery through a provision in the council’s management plan for the area called Amendment 113.
Essentially, it created a priority quota for cod to be delivered to shore-based processing plants west of the 170-degree west latitude line in the Aleutian Islands, protecting Adak’s plant from being outrun by the at-sea processing vessels.
However, in May, a federal judge ruled in favor of a group of fishermen that complained about that amendment being against the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, saying the council needed to either revise or remove the amendment.
The City of Adak is appealing the decision, but in the meantime, the fishermen and plant operator hoped to get an emergency policy from the council to protect the plant in the upcoming season. Steve Minor, who testified to the council June 8 on behalf of the petitioners, said the proposed petition wouldn’t have ensured that fish were delivered to the Adak plant, but it provided a chance to do so.
“The emergency rule will not restore Amendment 113,” he said. “It also does not guarantee that a single pound of Pacific cod will be landed by any shore-based processor, but it will create opportunity for us.”
The petitioners argue there is an emergency because with the increasing participation in the Bering Sea fishery, the season is shortening as vessels run up to the halibut protected species catch limit quickly, forcing all the other fisheries closed to protect halibut.
Fishermen have told the council in the past that with the pressure to fish quickly, vessels may not move off a particular ground even if the catch of halibut is high because they are concerned about not keeping up. With the challenge of more vessels fishing on the same limit of halibut, the petitioners argue they’re concerned that without a set-aside of 5,000 metric tons above the guideline harvest limit of Pacific cod, they may not get a season at all.
George Pollock of Aleut Enterprise urged the council to establish a Limited Access Privilege Program fishery, which would add additional protections for that area. The community is working on developing other fisheries, such as for geoduck clams, he said.
“These activities are directly or indirectly supported by shore-based Pacific cod processing,” he said.
However, Bering Sea trawlers opposed the emergency petition. In the complaint filed over Amendment 113, the Groundfish Forum, the United Catcher Boats, B&N Fisheries Co. and the Katie Ann LLC complained that the set-aside for the Aleutian Islands did not meet the MSA criterion for conservation purposes, and the court agreed.
Heather Mann, representing the Midwater Trawlers Association, told the council the petition did not meet the criteria for an emergency and was instead another attempt to reinstate Amendment 113.
“(Emergency rules) are not a management tool to be used as an end-run around court decisions,” she told the council. “In this case, the criteria have not been met.”
The council members did not agree that it was an emergency and voted instead to ask staff to produce a discussion of trawl catcher vessel harvests and the set-aside in the Aleutian Island Pacific cod fishery.
Council alternate member Rachel Baker, representing the State of Alaska for Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang, proposed the amendment, saying that she didn’t think that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would view it as an emergency even if the council sent it on.
“I as one council member can’t do that,” she said.
Council members Craig Cross and Bill Tweit agreed with her, saying they would support the motion of looking at the problem holistically. Council member Andy Mezirow said he was disappointed the members had not done more to support Adak, and council member Theresa Peterson said she would have preferred some kind of more immediate action to help the community out of its predicament.
“This is most likely going to take a long time,” she said. “I think about the vulnerability of the plant and those dependent on the success of the plant to move forward.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].