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Keep 'catch shares' out of Gulf of Alaska fisheries

Darren Platt

Thirty-two thousand jobs may sound like a large labor force in a state with a population of under 750,000, but those familiar with federal fisheries policy in Alaska waters know otherwise. Catch shares, the recent trend in fisheries management that has taken over much of Alaska fisheries, essentially grants ownership of the fisheries to a small number of stakeholders and has led to massive job losses and wage reductions. The fabled Bering Sea king crab fishery lost 1,000 jobs virtually overnight, and halibut has been no better, losing more than 7,300 jobs in the first five years, with even more eliminated in the decades since.

So when a recent report concluded that the Alaska fishing industry employs 32,000 fishermen on roughly 8,600 fishing vessels, one should ask how many jobs the fisheries could provide if managed more responsibly.

Catch shares, also known as rationalization, transfers fishery access rights away from the general public and into the hands of current stakeholders by dividing up the annual catch into shares, called quota, and granting lifetime rights to quota owners. Shares can be bought, sold and leased on a largely unregulated market and typically result in massive consolidation of ownership and a transfer of fishing rights away from active fishermen, who cannot compete with the larger investment community in the market for these capital assets.

The Gulf of Alaska ground fishery, one of the largest in the state, is next in line to fall to another catch share program. Fishery managers at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council have started the process of devising a privatization scheme that will assuredly cost more fishermen their jobs, reduce wages, and simply eliminate the economic viability of the independent owner/operator fishing businesses that was once the dominant base of the fishing industry before catch shares took effect.

Although the council has discussed community protections in terms of consolidation limits and quota ownership requirements, similar provisions have essentially failed in the halibut fishery, which has seen the number of quota owners decline by nearly half, with even larger reductions in the number of active vessels. Meanwhile, as the value of the fishery has increased, the percent of fishing revenue paid to crewmembers has declined substantially, with quota holders typically reducing labor compensation by 50 to 75 percent of the traditional share percentage.

New entrants to catch shares fisheries are a rare occurrence and only exist under conditions of extreme financial duress. Share purchases are essentially nonexistent in the Bering Sea crab fishery except in the form of consolidation, and quota lease fees charged to fishermen are reaching 80 percent of gross revenue. Meanwhile, many fishermen who have purchased quota in the halibut fishery have been punished severely for doing so. Fishing revenue has not been able to keep pace with declines in quota value due to reductions in quota pounds and ex-vessel prices, and many fishing businesses that are otherwise highly profitable are going underwater simply for having purchased fishing rights.

One would expect the state to oppose a measure that eliminates small family businesses, reduces employment, increases debt burdens and disenfranchises entire generations of residents. Quite to the contrary, however, the state of Alaska, despite strictly forbidding catch shares in state fisheries, has been complicit, if not active, in pursuing these programs in federally managed fisheries. State officials, apparently aligned with a small group of stakeholders, are encouraging the implementation of a catch share program in the Gulf despite the obvious economic harm that is certain to befall coastal communities.

Alaska's federal representatives have been largely quiet on the issue. Sen. Mark Begich, who, as the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, is presumably in a position to meaningfully alter management guidelines, has remained generally uninterested in regulation trends that have harmed coastal communities and working fishermen. Earlier this month, in a committee meeting on fisheries issues, he heard testimony from the reputable fisheries scientist, Brian Rothschild, who declared that the required federal standard to consider the economic well-being of coastal communities has “been virtually ignored by the agency” (NOAA) that oversees federal fisheries management. It remains to be seen whether Sen. Begich will finally take notice.

Alternative proposals have been brought to the fisheries management council but have fallen on deaf ears. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, an organization that represents the broader spectrum of Alaska coastal residents, presented an alternative proposal for an industry-funded and stakeholder-managed association to distribute fishing rights that would provide all of the benefits of catch shares but without the deleterious social and economic outcomes. However, their proposal was pushed aside without much consideration, as it would appear that the management procedure, ostensibly designed to consider all possibilities, has become more of an automated procedure to implement catch shares.

Nevertheless, there is still hope. Alaska residents and stakeholders can submit comments as public testimony to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and they can certainly always write to their representatives. The state and our coastal communities can only benefit from more active community involvement and awareness in the management process, and though past results are discouraging, perhaps management will see that now is good time for a real change.

Darren Platt is a commercial fisherman out of Kodiak. For more information, please write darrenplatt(at)yahoo.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com.