UNALASKA — The success of the state waters Dutch Harbor Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea is scaring both the industrial trawl and longline fleets, and even a local Unalaska fisherman who says a new breed of small boats known as Super 8s are catching way too many fish.
In 2014, the new fishery opened with 3 percent of the total Bering Sea cod quota, and two years later it more than doubled to 6.4 percent, by votes of the Alaska Board of Fisheries to promote small boat fisheries.
And it may get a lot bigger, as the board will soon hear proposals for growing the fishery to 8, 10 or as much as 20 percent of all the cod available to fishermen in the Bering Sea.
Already, the boats less than 60 feet long have caught 10 times the average catch before the new rules took effect in 2014, according to opponent Chad See, executive director of the Freezer Longliner Coalition, representing factory boats that harvest cod with baited hooks anchored to the ocean floor.
See called for observers monitoring the catch on the vessels, saying “there is no observer requirement in the state waters fishery.”
He also cited conservation concerns, noting that while the Pacific cod decline in the Bering Sea is not as bad as in the Gulf of Alaska at 79 percent, it’s still significant, dropping 45 percent since 2014, according to the federal trawl survey.
“Any increase to the state water fishery increases the amount of cod that is unobserved,” See said, adding that while most of the Area O cod are Bering Sea fish, there is some overlap with Gulf fish, especially around Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands.
As ocean waters heat up, so do the politics of Pacific cod.
Complaining that wide-body “Super 8” 58-foot fishing boats aren’t really small boats, the Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee wants them to carry less than capacity, with limits of 150,000 pounds of Pacific cod in the Dutch Harbor state waters fishery, supporting a proposal before the Alaska Board of Fisheries when it meets in downtown Anchorage Oct. 18 and 19 at the Egan Convention Center.
“It does not resemble a small boat fishery, and is completely out of control,” said Dustan Dickerson, owner of the F/V Raven Bay, which he said can only pack 50,000 pounds, compared to a quarter-million pounds for a Super 8, at the Sept. 12 committee meeting at the Unalaska Public Library.
Dickerson described the Super 8s as “a 120-foot boat cut in half,” and Don Goodfellow, the plant manager of Alyeska Seafoods, said the vessels are 22-feet wide, resembling “a barge with a wheelhouse.”
Dickerson proposed limiting the amount of cod allowed on board to either 50,000, or 100,000 pounds of cod, but ultimately joined in the 7-0 vote to support Proposal 15 on the fish board agenda, submitted by Andrew Wilder.
Wilder called for the onboard limit in the growing Dutch Harbor subdistrict Pacific cod fishery, now in its fourth year, with 6.4 percent of the federal cod quota in the Bering Sea. With quotas slashed in the neighboring Gulf of Alaska, the Dutch Harbor cod fishery saw an influx of boats from the Gulf.
Goodfellow said the big winner is boatbuilder Fred Wahl Marine Constructioon, of Reedsport, Ore., and fishing crews from Oregon. But he predicted that even if onboard capacity is limited, the fishing industry will always look for an angle and loophole, like maybe hiring tenders to shuttle fish to the plants from the fishing grounds.
He compared the “arms race” shaping up in the cod fishery to the longtime tendency to build wider and deeper boats in Bristol Bay where salmon gillnetters are limited to 32 feet in length.
The fish board regulates fishing in state waters up to three miles from shore, and the new Dutch Harbor small boat fishery is increasingly attracting boats from the Gulf of Alaska, were the cod quota was down 80 percent in the past year. The decline of cod in the Gulf is blamed on the warm water “blob.”
The committee also rejected proposals to increase the state waters cod fishery to 10 and 20 percent, to protect the trawl fleet that delivers larger quantities of cod to local plants.
“This is way too big of a bite at one time,” said committee chair Frank Kelty.
“This is a big hit,” said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, via teleconference.
The committee also opposed a smaller request, for 8 percent, from Ernie Weiss of the Aleutians East Borough.
The committee also rejected a proposal, by a 6 to 1 vote, to close trawling in state waters during the pot cod fishery in Dutch Harbor, proposed by Robert Magnus Thorstenson Jr.
“Our boats continually lose pots to draggers in the Bering Sea pot cod fisheries,” he said in the written proposal, adding “there should be no trawling in state waters while our fishery is being prosecuted.”
“We do not want to catch pots,” said trawler advocate Paine, saying that the trawl and pot fleets coordinate by sharing information to avoid such entanglements, although he admitted it still occasionally happens.
The lone dissenter was Steven Gregory, who repeatedly complained the committee prioritizes economics over conservation.
Thorstenson wrote that pot cod fishing is a cleaner fishery that “negates the bycatch impact” of cod caught with other gear types. Dickerson said the Super 8s are a conservation menace when they rapidly harvest large quantities of fish, and said the fishing effort should be spread out in space and time.
In an effort to gain a local voice amongst the Super 8s, the Unalaska Native Fisherman’s Association decided to join a new small boat advocacy group, the Under Sixty Cod Harvesters, by buying a membership for Dickerson’s boat.
The Under 60 group, in its proposal for 10 percent of the state waters cod quota, said their fleet is “largely comprised of vessels that are owned, crewed and maintained by Alaskans.”
The portrayal of trawlers as non-local was challenged as a “myth” by At-Sea Processors Association Executive Director Stephanie Madsen, via teleconference, citing the ownership of factory trawlers by Alaska Community Development Quota groups.
Kelty said cod landings in 2017 in Unalaska totaled 70 million pounds, worth $22 million at 30 cents per pound, in combined pot cod and trawl-caught fish, with the highest percentage from the trawl sector, paying $1.1 million in state and local taxes.
Jim Paulin can be reached a [email protected]