OPINION: The Alaska tanner crab stand-down is a big deal

It’s nearly impossible to get Alaska commercial fishermen to agree on anything. They are notoriously stubborn, rarely see eye-to-eye on issues ranging from shackle selection to boat colors, and will even argue endlessly over what day of the week it is (this is true; I have been engaged in multiple debates on this subject). So, when Gulf of Alaska seafood processors offered a mere $2.50 per pound to tanner crab fishermen last week, the unanimous response was shocking: We said no. All of us. Roughly 170 vessels, covering over 500 miles of coastline and three distinct management areas, decided not to set their gear at bargain basement prices. Not a single boat left the docks, and there are reportedly zero crab pots in the water.

I own and operate one of the vessels currently standing down in solidarity with our fleet. I’ll admit I had my doubts about us all simply refusing to fish without a better price. I thought too many boats were already heavily invested in the season. Many had purchased and loaded bait in anticipation of a Jan. 15 opening on 7.3 million pounds of western gulf tanners, the largest harvest in decades. I was convinced that either greed or desperation would inevitably drive some to scab — break ranks — and set their gear, prompting the usual free-for-all fishery. But that didn’t happen, and as of Wednesday evening, we were all still tied to the docks.

I fish in Kodiak, where roughly 95% of participating vessels and permit holders are Alaska residents. This means that virtually all income earned by harvesters stays in the state and filters through local fishing communities, buoying the coastal economy and generating income for shore-based businesses, from welding shops to breweries.

The processing sector, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly owned by out-of-state and often foreign companies, whose understandable intentions are to siphon as many resources as possible out of Alaska at a minimal cost. Historically, competition between seafood processors to purchase Alaska crab has driven dockside prices up, but recent consolidation trends within the processing sector have left fewer bidders at the table and heavily diminished the bargaining power of Alaska fishermen.

Standing down in anticipation of a fair price will, we hope, result in reasonable pay for our crab fleet, but it will not fix the systemic problem of how Alaska manages its resources. Our fishery regulations are increasingly designed to protect the vested interests of out-of-state corporations at the cost of sacrificing the competitive pressures that are necessary for the natural development of any industry. In many fisheries, it has become virtually impossible for Alaskans to gain access to either the harvesting or processing sectors as our regulators have devised complicated rules and “quota shares” that lock out competition by making it prohibitively expensive for new entrants to join. It’s the inevitable result of a regulatory process dominated by corporate lobbyists whose motivations and ambitions are completely out-of-alignment with the needs of our state.

It’s time for Alaska and our politicians to re-examine how we manage our state’s vast resources. Alaska should not aspire to simply play the role of gracious host to outside corporations whose economic activity in the state provides diminishing returns to our own residents, in exchange for perceived market stability they can’t actually provide.

In the end, it’s not very different from extraction economies across the globe, which only provide for residents after an increasingly consolidated industrial complex meets its goals, as is the case for the mining industry in many African nations. Though our constitution mandates that Alaska manages its resources for the benefit of its residents, our politicians and regulators have loosely interpreted that clause in a way that has left our fishermen and local businesses behind. It is time for an introspective and critical re-evaluation of our state’s resource management. We should promote competition in the seafood industry instead of stifling it, and we should prioritize our own fishermen over foreign companies. If meaningful changes were made, our crab fleet would not find itself in its current dilemma, and our state would fully benefit from the prosperity of its resources.


Darren Platt is a commercial fisherman based out of Kodiak.

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