Struggling commercial fishermen search for solutions

AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
HOMER - Alaska’s fishing businesses are in a world of hurt these days, reeling from the effects of everything from fish farms to climate change, but how to resolve the myriad problems facing fishermen is a million-dollar question.

Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, has some radical proposals for the state-managed salmon, crab and other fisheries, which he pitched to a state convention of commercial fishermen in Petersburg and may introduce to the Alaska Legislature in January.

And in Homer, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council board of directors met to discuss a broad range of ideas about revamping federal fisheries, some of which could dramatically strengthen or work to undermine coastal Alaska fishing towns.

All this talk comes under the umbrella term "rationalization," meaning efforts to increase efficiency in a notoriously inefficient industry.

"Rationalization is a huge word," said Alan Parks, a longtime fisherman who is the conservation council’s citizen outreach coordinator in Homer. "People really need to think about what that means."

The most familiar example of rationalization in Alaska was the institution of individual fishing quotas in the halibut and black cod fisheries. Before 1995, anyone could fish for either species, which caused the fleet to get so large that federal managers reduced fishing time to two 24-hour periods a year.

With IFQs, the public harvest rights were awarded to individuals, allowing them to fish whenever they wanted. That improved safety and fish quality and spread the harvest over eight months.

Other results were less savory for many in the fishing industry. Processing plants lost much of their markets for frozen fish, and many fishermen who felt they deserved IFQs didn’t get them. The number of boats has dwindled, reducing the number of crew jobs.

Now federal managers are considering IFQs for the big Bering Sea crab fisheries and possibly for bottomfish boats in the Gulf of Alaska. With the halibut and black cod experience behind them, many in Alaska’s fishing industry either want IFQs desperately or will fight them to death.

However, IFQs aren’t the only option for rationalizing a fishery. Other options are to create fishing co-operatives in which boats, as well as processing plants, get individual quotas and can work together to wring the most money out of their harvest. That might include timing their fishing trips to coincide with the highest market demand or fishing more carefully to reduce the bycatch of unwanted species.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council doesn’t support or condemn any particular rationalization plan, but wants any plan to reflect its conservation ethic, Parks said.

"One of our guiding principles is that there is an intrinsic value to fishing in our coastal communities," he said, "and decision makers have the responsibility to take those intrinsic values into consideration when discussing rationalization plans."

Other principles include the need to reduce bycatch of unwanted species, to protect the habitat that is crucial for the long-term health of fish and other marine animals and to convert boats to less-destructive means of fishing, such as using pots rather than bottom trawling.

"Bycatch, habitat protection, gear conversion - they all need to be talked about now and incorporated into rationalization plans," Parks said. "If not, you don’t really address the issues" that are casting doubt on the viability of Alaska’s fisheries.

The council has about 800 members in Alaska, many of whom are coastal fishermen, Parks said.

Some of the problems inherent in federal crab and groundfish fisheries are mirrored in state waters, but at least their markets are relatively strong. Salmon fishermen, on the other hand, have seen their valuable markets undercut by salmon farms, and the combination of low prices and high expenses has made salmon fisheries less viable now than at any time since the mid-1970s.

Across Alaska, fishermen are scrambling to find an edge in the increasingly global salmon market.

In Kachemak Bay and elsewhere, fishermen have formed cooperatives to ensure high quality and take advantage of niche markets. Scalzi thinks the Alaska Legislature could lend the industry a hand, and he has nearly a dozen bills ready for introduction that shore up the hard-pressed salmon industry.

His proposals could be shot down by fishermen, the Legislature or the governor, Scalzi said, but that’s not the point of bringing up these issues. He’s trying to get people to "think outside the box."

"The industry has to take a good look at the next 20 to 30 years," he said. "What we are going to need to be viable again? What are we going to do to keep canneries in remote areas? A love-hate relationship exists between canneries and fishermen, but we need each other. We have to make the business climate acceptable to processors as well as to fishermen."

11/11/2001 - 8:00pm