Council cracks up over catch shares

  • Sunday, January 8, 2017 10:03pm
  • News

After four years of work on a Gulf of Alaska catch share program, the process was abruptly halted by Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.

Everyone in the Gulf of Alaska agrees on one thing: it was the other side’s fault.

Depending on who you ask, catch shares are evil incarnate or an angel of good management. Depending on who you ask, they’ll either save Kodiak or kill it.

Depending on who you ask, it’s either the State of Alaska’s fault or its credit for not allowing catch shares in the Gulf of Alaska’s groundfish fishery.

And depending on who you ask, they’ll either come up again or get sliced up into a handful of other little nibbles at the Gulf of Alaska bycatch problems.

Either sighs of relief or defeat leaked from every mouth in the room on this past Dec. 12 when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the Alaska coast, indefinitely tabled a complex range of options for the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries.

The tabled program has a long history of stops, false starts, foibles and thrown stones. This time, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten charged the processor and trawl industry with refusing to bend — the same charge leveled at the state by the trawlers and processors.

“Had elements of the program not been so focused on privatizing and monetizing the fishery, there could have been the broad structure of a plan. But there was no acceptance for compromise,” said Jeff Stephan, a Kodiak fishermen and one of the council Advisory Panel’s most outspoken opponents of catch shares.

It was the state’s fault, others said.

“I seriously question how dedicated the state was to an outreach effort, as was pledged in Kodiak, when they never came prepared to talk about any changes they wanted to see to a proposed program,” said Heather Mann of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, a staunch catch share advocate.

Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries — Pacific cod, pollock, and flatfish — are one of the only groundfish fisheries in the North Pacific without a catch share or rationalization program.

Catch share programs involve issuing fishing quota, or shares, to eligible fishermen based on factors such as history in the fishery. The goal is to end so-called “derby style” fishing also known as the “race for fish” in an open access environment.

Such conditions often led to risky behavior chasing the harvest, particularly so in the Bering Sea crab fisheries that inspired the name for the TV show “Deadliest Catch.”

Halibut and sablefish were the first to be rationalized in Alaska in the early 1990s, with similar programs created for crab, pollock, and flatfish in the Bering Sea.

Like the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska also has pollock and flatfish fisheries that are known for heavy amounts of bycatch of crab, halibut and salmon, which are taken while in pursuit of the target species.

While Gulf trawlers do not have the catch shares of their Bering Sea counterparts, they do have halibut and chinook salmon bycatch caps that if met lead to the closing of the fisheries. Chinook bycatch caps were adopted in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and the halibut bycatch cap was lowered by 15 percent in 2012.

Trawlers and processors have said for years they need better bycatch management tools than what the council offers and that catch shares are the best way.

They aren’t wrong, in that catch shares are linked to effective bycatch management and reductions in other fisheries, including the six programs in the North Pacific.

But the possible negative impacts of these programs — fleet consolidation, loss of crew jobs, and the death of the coastal Alaskan tradition of owner-operators — are also linked to catch shares, and hang like a cloud over the heads of coastal residents like Stephan.

To him, the culture is at stake.

“If you can design fisheries in a manner that are efficient as can be without damaging the social and cultural and economic characteristics of these communities…I think that there’s something that can be done there,” he said.

Trawlers say they made every attempt to address the state’s concerns about community impacts.

Such attempts included vessel harvesting caps, ownership caps, active participation requirements, port landing requirements for Kodiak, and other assorted bells and whistles to prevent the kind of behavior that turned some crab and halibut fishermen into what are known derisively as “mailbox fishermen” who lease their quota for rates anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent or more with their fees coming out of the pockets of working crew that neither own or have any stake in the resource.

But in the end Cotten said their solutions weren’t good enough.

“The advocates just weren’t going to offer any compromises or any concessions,” Cotten said afterward. “We are in a different place now. I’m hopeful people will reconsider their stances, and we will too.”

Heather McCarty, who lobbies for the City and Borough of Kodiak, said several fisheries working group meetings yielded the same thing.

“We’ve been also hearing meeting after meeting that if there’s going to be a catch share program, there needs to be mitigation of some of these impacts,” she told the council. “I think there’s general acknowledgment that there’s a problem in the trawl sector. I don’t think there’s a common understanding of how that should be addressed.”

Cotten ended the showdowns, at least for now, by making a motion to table the options indefinitely on Dec. 12. Catch shares are simply too large an issue not to have more support.

“It’s clear both the council and the public are deeply divided on this issue, and something more closely resembling consensus is needed,” said Cotten. “Moving to a catch share program like this would be a major policy shift, and one of this magnitude should enjoy broader public support.

“When the crab rationalization program was approved in 2003, the council vote was 11-0. I think we should look for boarder support and more consensus.”

Though divided on the subject of catch shares, most council members agreed with Cotten, voting 8-3 in favor of the motion in spite of hesitations.

“I’m of quite mixed mind on this,” said Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Though he hated the idea of staying in “limbo,” Tweit said Cotten’s motion was pragmatic.

“I think we have to be smart of how we use our resources,” Tweit said. “I think the commissioner’s motion responds to that.”

Others echoed Tweit’s reluctant yes vote.

“This is not our finest hour,” said Roy Hyder of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re going to have to find a way to go forward, nibble around the edges, but as far as putting together a comprehensive plan … we’re not gonna get there. I’m going to support the motion, because we’re stuck.”

Others disagreed, saying the council’s inaction amounts to a failure after all the meetings and infighting and collaboration.

“This is the fourth time I’ve dealt with GOA ratz,” said council member Craig Cross, using the acronym for Gulf of Alaska and shorthand for rationalization. “Every time we get to the end something happens — a new governor, a new administration, a new philosophy. It’s getting very difficult and frustrating that we can’t help these fishermen.

“If we take this and postpone it indefinitely, we are at status quo. You can call it what you want, but we’re going to continue to have a race for fish.”

The latest try at a comprehensive program ended in 2016, but since 2001 the Gulf of Alaska rationalization talks have encapsulated gubernatorial cancellations, rebrandings, surprise alternatives, accusations of political intrigue in Washington, D.C., stand downs, emergency season openings and closures, protest parades and even a pie throwing contest.

The quest for a Gulf of Alaska groundfish rationalization program started in 2001 when Congress directed the North Pacific council to “examine the fisheries under its jurisdiction, particularly the Gulf of Alaska groundfish and Bering Sea crab fisheries, to determine whether rationalization is needed. In particular, the North Pacific Council shall analyze individual fishing quotas, processor quotas, cooperatives, and quotas held by communities.”

The plan developed over the next half decade until former Gov. Sarah Palin saw the crab fleet shrink by two-thirds in the first year of rationalization and lose 1,000 crew jobs in a devastating blow to Kodiak and other small communities such as Cold Bay. Palin instructed the council to drop efforts to create a Gulf program after she took office.

Alaska holds six seats on the 11-member council, meaning the state can effectively control the outcome.

After the council passed a series of chinook salmon bycatch limits and halibut bycatch reductions in 2011 and 2012, the council took up the matter again, this time focusing on bycatch management that would do more than simply cap the allowed amount.

Through Gov. Sean Parnell’s term, former Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell worked closely with groundfish trawlers and processors to craft the industry’s preferred alternative.

One of the first appointments made by Gov. Bill Walker after being elected in 2014 was to replace Campbell with Cotten, who advanced another alternative at the council’s October 2015 meeting that would give trawlers bycatch quota, but no quota for the directed species. The ADFG commissioner is mandated to have a seat on the council and typically sets the direction for the Alaska delegation.

Trawl and processing industry representatives lambasted the option as another race for fish — this time a race for bycatch — and accused Cotten of introducing it without the same public input that had gone into their own preferred alternative.

The arguments between trawlers supporting Campbell’s alternative and Cotten’s motion boiled over during the council’s February 2016 meeting in Portland, when Cotten stood in hotel room surrounded by shouting trawlers accusing him of abusing the process.

Only days before, the same trawlers had a spike of halibut bycatch after targeting non-pollock species. Rather than fish for the low prices being offered for small-sized pollock, trawlers went after groundfish and ended up taking 110 metric tons more halibut than they had in the same period a year earlier.

During this time, Julie Bonney of the processor and trawl representative group Alaska Groundfish Data Bank organized a stand down specifically for trawl operators to travel to Portland in protest of Cotten’s motion.

Rumors later surfaced that Bonney and others were pressing Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler to draft language to get their preference into a congressional appropriations bill, which Herrera Beutler denied.

They later organized letter-writing campaigns to Gov. Bill Walker’s administration, and a parade and festival celebrating the trawl industry during the council’s June meeting in Kodiak.

Processing workers and trawl crew marched through downtown Kodiak sporting signs reading, “Gov. Walker, don’t take our jobs” and “Don’t destroy what you don’t understand.” Red baseball caps with the words “Make Trawling Great Again” were de rigueur for attendees — even for Duncan Fields, one the council’s most outspoken critics of catch share programs, who later took a pie to the face for charity toward Kodiak’s Brother Francis shelter.

Joe Bundrant, CEO of Trident Seafoods, which controls roughly 50 percent of the Gulf of Alaska groundfish harvest, and Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperate, paid $2,500 between the two to hit Fields with the pie.

Between then and the December meeting, groundfish industry representatives like Bonney and Pacific Seafood Processors Association executive director Glenn Reed met with Cotten, Department of Commerce, Community & Economic Development Commissioner Chris Hladick, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.

As policy, two of the most direct means of reducing bycatch are catch share programs and straightforward bycatch caps.

Modern catch share programs took hold as a management tool starting in the 1970s, but the U.S. saw its first catch share program in 1990 with the Mid-Atlantic Surf Clam and Ocean Quahog Fishery. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has 16 catch share programs spread among six of the eight regional fishery management councils that govern U.S. federal fisheries, which take place between three and 200 miles off the coast.

Over 40 countries now use the programs for a variety of goals, including lowering fishing mortalities, consolidating over-capitalized fleets, reducing bycatch, extending season lengths, reducing fishermen’s cost of operations, and steadying supply for wholesalers and retailers.

Catch shares accomplish these goals in theory by ending the “race for fish” in fisheries that only established a fleet-wide harvest limit and a season length.

Fishermen could catch however much they could handle within the season limits and stop when the fleet reached the overall cap. Under a rationalized program, individual fishermen start the season with a set quota and fish until they catch their share, theoretically allowing a slower, safer pace to avoid prohibited species.

Managers and conservationists tout the positives of catch share programs. Fishermen can more effectively plan their trips, deliver fish according to market demands, fish more carefully, deploy their gear more selectively and take greater pains to avoid fishing in sensitive habitats.

Coastal communities, however, fear the “economic efficiencies” catch shares establish.

For Kodiak, a town a built on fish, catch shares are seen as either savior or slayer.

Most of Kodiak’s seafood landings value — $41 million in 2014 — comes from groundfish, according to Juneau economics firm McDowell Group, which contracted with the City and Borough of Kodiak in 2015 for a study on the community’s fisheries dependence.

The island has 10 active processors, five of which are among the city’s 10 largest employers with more than 1,300 Kodiak resident employees. Together the 10 make more than two-thirds of their revenue from federal fisheries. Of this, 58 percent of the total dockside value comes from federal groundfish.

Once touting itself as the “Crab Capital of the World,” there is also no shortage of hard feelings toward trawlers as fishermen have seen crab fisheries closed and halibut harvests cut while trawl bycatch continues unabated and often unobserved because of limited coverage on their boats.

Kodiak has already seen its fisheries participation shrink, and community advocates wish to see it shrink no further, especially if caused by enriching trawlers with harvest shares.

In Kodiak, cost of entry into fisheries has risen, and local participation has fallen. Between 2000 and 2010, Kodiak’s locally held Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits dropped from 1,646 to 1,279; halibut quota holders from 304 to 224; active crew licenses from 1,263 to 884; and locally owned vessels from 719 to 452.

Some fear the statistics from other catch share programs, given Kodiak’s delicate fishy tightrope walk.

Crab rationalization took place in 2005, but the outcomes had, and still have, certain Alaska coastal communities and fishermen reeling. Consolidation, one of rationalization’s most feared impacts and the biggest warning repeatedly given to the council, shrunk the crab fleet by 200 vessels in one season and eliminated 1,000 crew jobs overnight.

Halibut rationalization also produced consolidation of vessels and harvest quota, shrinking the fleet from more than 3,000 vessels in 1992 to just more than 1,000 in 2012.

Although the shares are classified as fishing “privileges” under the law, the issuance of quota is essentially permanent — and extremely valuable.

The philosophical argument against rationalization is that it privatizes a public resource by gifting the right to a fish to a select few while cutting out the Americans who own it.

Catch shares have often been promoted as investment tools and foundations run by Intel founder Gordon Moore and retail giant Walmart only drive the suspicion that a well-funded fish grab is underway in the guise of conservation.

The issuance of halibut, sablefish and crab quota made a select group of vessel owners incredibly wealthy which in turn reduced working crew compensation and created a class of stakeholders who no longer needed to fish to make money from the fisheries.

Quota is extremely expensive — halibut shares cost more than $60 per pound in 2016, which limits the ability of new entrants to join the fishery.

At least one catch share progam hasn’t caused as many problems.

In the Gulf of Alaska rockfish program, started in 2007 and reauthorized in 2012, the fleet has only lost two vessels since the program started, and halibut bycatch dropped 80 percent in the first year.

The council made several changes when it reauthorized the program after a five-year review designed to correct mistakes in prior attempts. Among them were severing the ties requiring delivery to certain processors, effectively cutting processors out of the program as non-fishermen, and instituting a 4 percent vessel use cap that ensures a minimum of 25 vessels will always be in the fleet.

Similarly, a 30 percent cap was put on processors, ensuring at least four plants could take deliveries.

Trident lost a lawsuit challenging the revised rockfish program for cutting out processors, which are included in the Bering Sea pollock and crab programs, arguing they were having to pay higher prices to fishermen because the company had to compete for deliveries rather than have vessels tied to them based on history.

Cotten predicts the trawlers are simply waiting until a new governor comes along to usher the issue back onto the council’s agenda.

Gulf rationalization may be tabled once again, but the urgency for a solution won’t be until one is finally found.

DJ Summers can be reached at

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