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Bristol Bay fishermen support fleet reduction, study says

Hannah Heimbuch | Bristol Bay Times
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association sent out a questionnaire this spring to all 1,858 Bristol Bay drift permit holders. They are still accepting returned questionnaires, but have gotten back more than 400 so far. flickr / echoforsberg

Should the state of Alaska buy back some of its limited entry permits in Bristol Bay? A study recently released by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association indicates that fishermen say yes.

The organization sent out a questionnaire this spring to all 1,858 Bristol Bay drift permit holders. They are still accepting returned questionnaires, but have gotten back more than 400 so far. According to the seafood development association, which supports market, product and infrastructure improvements in the bay, most permit holders who've responded  favor a buyback.

At the time of their summer newsletter release, the returns showed that 74 percent of them supported a buyback program. A total of 81 percent supported the association's continued investigation into a potential buyback, including what the costs and impacts would be to Bristol Bay communities. The association's annual meeting was in Dillingham earlier this month.

The question of a fleet reduction originated with the board of directors, which after extensive discussion, decided to put the issue to the fleet.

"Our discussion focused on elements of 'buyback programs' at the state and federal level, specifically as they may relate to concerns regarding the economic sustainability of the Bristol Bay drift gillnet fishery in light of the smaller sockeye runs we have seen return to the Bay over the past four years," stated a recent letter from the board to association members. "At the end of the day we were all in agreement that the issue warranted further investigation."

The organization began by looking at the Optimum Number Study done by Alaska's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission in 2005. That study incorporated historical data, public hearing testimony, conservation goals and economic efficiency. It concluded that the optimum range for Bristol Bay drift permits was likely between 900 and 1,400.

The board invited Michael Sturtevant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to a spring meeting to discuss the issue with them.

"Mr. Sturtevant is the team leader of NOAA's Fishery Capacity Reduction Program," stated the board's letter. "He has been the lead administrator for NOAA in a number of fleet reduction programs, including Bering Sea Aleutian Islands crab, Pacific Coast groundfish and, most recently, SE Alaska salmon purse seine."

That meeting was extremely helpful, according to BBRSDA, and made it clear that there are options to explore in advocating for a smaller fleet.

"According to Mr. Sturtevant, the design and implementation of a buyback program is a complex, multi-year process that gives rise to many questions and requires significant support in affected fleets," the letter read. "Before we proceed further in this exploratory phase, and in an attempt to be as transparent as possible, we feel it is appropriate to poll our members."

The board currently has seven members, with Bob Waldrop serving as executive director.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman.