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Western Gulf of Alaska fishermen join catch-sharing discussion

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Kathy Hough, NOAA photo

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Come February, a federal fisheries council will continue to discuss catch-sharing programs in Alaska trawl fisheries — this time with a bigger voice from Southwest fishermen.

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This winter the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) has heard from concerned parties in the state’s Southcentral ground fisheries, regarding a change over to catch sharing.

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The Council took action in October, said NPFMC member Dan Hull, identifying the purpose and need for a Central Gulf catch share plan. Community members from Kodiak in particular were organized and vocal in their goals and ideas for such a plan, he said.

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“The focus on the action was limited to the Central Gulf trawl fishery because it’s the sector with the greatest issues to address in terms of bycatch,” Hull said.

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Fishermen hope that new fishery management will help them to work effectively with bycatch limits, hard caps that can sometimes bring fishing to a halt under the current system.

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While a few Western Gulf fishermen spoke at the December meeting, Hull noted that they, in general, have been less organized and less interested when it came to rationalization than those on the south central coast.

A place at the table

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But as Central Gulf trawlers look toward the rising possibility of fishery rationalization, their Western Gulf counterparts have stepped up to claim their spot in the discussion.

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“Specifically there’s been testimony in favor of being included,” Hull said, adding that what fishermen actually want from the process won’t be totally clear until they hear directly from participants in February.

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“Folks who fish out of Sand Point and King Cove, even though they’ve never been real wild about rationalization, knew that if they didn’t rationalize they would just end up in a world of trouble,” said Beth Stewart of the Peninsula Fishermen’s Coalition.

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Fishermen and industry representatives are concerned that implementing rationalization on one side of the Gulf, and not the other, will create consequences for the west. Issues could arise over access — for instance if Central Gulf quota owners take advantage of the Western Gulf’s open access, they could fish until the fleet reaches total allowable catch, then head back to the Central Gulf to fill their individual quota.

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That rise in competition could be a significant threat to western fishermen who don’t own shares.

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Those concerns and others are inspiring more western fishermen to speak up. 

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“At our February meeting the Western Gulf stakeholders will have a chance to weigh in on whether or not and how they might like to be included in that effort or in the action,” Hull said.

Same fish, different fishery

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Stewart said her organization’s members are definitely looking for a solution to bycatch issues, particularly during the pollock B season.

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“As the bycatch rules have changed over time things have become more and more difficult,” Stewart said. “The guys have tried, like last year and the year before, to limit the activity in their own fleet.”

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However, all it takes is one or two boats not following the plan and independent bycatch control goes out the window, she said. 

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“Problem is, if you don’t have control of the whole fleet you’re kind of out of luck,” Stewart said.

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That how and why looks fairly different when comparing the west and central regions.

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For one, the participants in each area’s industry would be affected differently, considering the differing structure of their fleets and processors.

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“The characteristics of participation are different,” Hull said.

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There are seven processors on Kodiak, while in the Western Gulf area there are just three. In the Central Gulf, 75 percent of the fleet is non-resident, while more than half of the Western Gulf fishermen are Alaska residents.

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In regards to ownership, the main difference between central and western regions is that most Western Gulf participating vessels have homeports in the region or are locally owned.

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These factors indicate a need for different rationalization structures in each region.

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It’s that need, and a desire to avoid mistakes of past management, that has organizations like the Peninsula Fishermen’s Coalition getting their opinions out there.

The fine print

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There are a number of issues they’ll be supporting along the way, Stewart said, including vessel class sizes, and non-transferability between those class sizes.

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That will help them keep the fleet as is, Stewart said, ensuring that there will always be a small boat fleet.

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“I can’t say that they’re enthusiastic supporters of rationalization plans,” Stewart said, “but having seen some of them they at least want to be in charge of what’s going to happen with theirs. They don’t want to end up behind the eight ball on this and have to do something that won’t work for their communities.”

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While the conversation has just begun — especially for those in the Western Gulf — the list of decisions to make in the course of rationalization is a long one.

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Which species to include, eligibility for quota ownership, program duration, transferability and how to structure initial allocations are just a few.

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There is also the consideration of state versus federal waters, and how management will bridge that boundary. A large portion of Alaska’s pollock is harvested within three miles of the coast, or within state waters.

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“In general, for the entire action, it’s going to take some time and some deliberate thinking to develop some type of catch share plan,” Hull said. “Considering community impacts, impacts or effects on crew members and captains, there’s been a lot of experience with catch share plans in Alaska waters with many positives…but then there’s been side effects that have been undesirable. So I’m sure that the council is going to be very careful in how it moves forward.”

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Should the council and industry choose to move forward, they will be taking the first steps in a multi-year reorganization.

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“There is no history of these things going quickly,” Stewart said.

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While the outcome of this complex discussion is far from decided, one thing has become clear. Western Gulf fishermen want a place at the table when it comes to hammering out what a rationalized trawl fishery in the Gulf looks like.

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Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com