GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 13, 2009

Alaskans' visit spotlights differences in fisheries

By Richard Gaines

Coming across country, two Alaskans describing their deep, different and varied experiences in the nation's newest, biggest volume and value fishery also underscored how different their catch share system histories are from the one the New England groundfishermen have to look forward to.

Amendment 16, now published for comment, would, if approved as written, institute split system for the groundfishery — with one segment of the industry working off shares that are pooled in harvesting cooperatives while the independents continue to work in a continuation of the preexisting effort control approach — only with ever less effort allowed.

Both representatives who visited here Wednesday evening — with The Gloucester House a middle stop on a speaking and question-answering tour that started Tuesday in New Bedford and ended yesterday in Portland — readily agreed that Alaska has nothing like the mixed stock New England groundfishery, which has been operating in the Western Atlantic for half a millennium.

Scale and scope were cited as fundamentally different.

Alaska's 2007 output was worth $1.5 billion from the immense Bering sea industry scale fishery and the small boat-oriented Gulf of Alaska. In contrast, Gloucester boat price totaled $48 million in 2007, and even with New Bedford's scallop crop, the co-capital of the Ocean Nation grossed $268 million.

In addition, Alaskan catch share systems have been applied to far simpler fisheries than the multi-species complex of New England. And according to the industry officials, Steve Minor and Joe Childers, the decision to radically ration fisheries in Alaska was made by industry and the communities, with much of the structuring and restructuring done in the private sector — bottom up, as they put it — to save collapsed or collapsing fisheries.

In all cases, failing fisheries were resurrected by allocating catch shares, creating a market for them, steps that allowed marginal participants to exit while capacity was concentrated. But that, again, is different from New England.

"This is not a collapsed fishery," Boston fisherman Mike Walsh retorted to the Alaskans.

Here, the partial transformation of the groundfishery has been "top-down" from the federal government, an approach the Alaskans described as undesirable.

Minor, executive director of the North Pacific Crab Association, and Childers, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, were brought to the New England fishing industry and its hub communities by the Environmental Defense Fund to report on their nuanced but favorable experiences with catch shares, they both agreed.

Their visit came some two weeks after a peaceful, regional meeting of fishermen, protesting perceived autocratic ways of the federal regulatory officers, rallied in the parking lot of the regional offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Blackburn Industrial Park for almost three hours.

At the Oct. 30 outdoor rally, the EDF and the Pew Environment Group, the nation's most active non-government organizations in fisheries' theory, science and policy, were targeted on signs, along with Jane Lubchenco, the administrator for fisheries for the Obama administration and drawings of jellyfish. The image of the jellyfish was drawn from a policy paper by EDF that had argued that elementary organisms would emerge as the alpha predators, unless drastic changes — read: catch shares — are instituted widely and immediately.

EDF's paper, co-written by Lubchenco before she was nominated by President Obama to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was criticized in a national teleconference sponsored by the Pew Environment Group to sharpen distinctions between the big greens.

The Big Green bickering continued this week in the buildup to EDF's road show with Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group responding to Minor's e-mailed concerns about the comments of Linda Behnken, an Alaska fisherman who was one of National Fishermen's 2009 highliners. Behnken participated in Pew's teleconference presentations — there were two — which urged the government to "go slow" on the implementation of catch shares.

Julie Wormser, director of EDF's New England Oceans Program, organized the Gloucester visit, but asserted the organization did not have an agenda except to encourage greater understanding by New Englanders of the ways of catch shares.

Minor and Childers' visit and informal seminar brought out about four dozen fishermen, interested citizens, and local officials as well as former Mayor John Bell and industry figures like business innovator Vito Giacalone of the Northeast Seafood Coalition and Larry Cuilla, president of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

"It was nice that they (Minor and Childers) came," said Cuilla, whose family-owned auction brokers the vast majority of the port's groundfish, reportedly 17 million to 22 million pounds a year. "But I felt they needed to stay and understand sectors first, and our area and how different it is from their experiences. I couldn't relate their systems to what our vessels and industry are going through right now."

Giacalone made a similar point, explaining that the boats in the groundfishery have continually been prevented by the regulatory regime from landing anything close to the allowable catch in nearly all the groundfish stocks.

"If catch shares are supposed to land you the total allowable catch, we'd have two or three times as much (fish)," Giacalone said. Instead, he said, the total allowable catch system in a multispecies fishery can be shut down by a small quota of a single species, and that's the scenario he said he sees looming.

The proposed catch limit on pollock is barely one third of the total catch from last year. Giacalone described the proposed pollock limit as a "choke stock" with the potential to collapse the New England fishery in its first season of catch shares.

The visit and exchange of fishing business insights also came days before the New England Fishery Management Council meets in Newport, R.I., next week with an agenda that includes approving tightened catch controls on fishermen who choose to remain outside the catch share fishing cooperatives, or "sectors."

The increasingly strict effort controls over the common pool or fishermen outside sectors are widely expected to force out of business many day boats whose owners have struggled to remain active.

Deflecting questions specific to the New England situation, Minor and Childers limited their comments to descriptions of the half dozen catch share systems brought into Alaskan fisheries in the past two decades. But in the dialogue, moderated by John Sackton, the publisher of the industry news digest Seafood.com, the profound differences became clear.

From their reports emerged the outlining of catch share programs — the management of fisheries weakened by unfettered competition between an excess of boats in unlimited access to the fish, and maxed-out quotas in days, with heavy losses of boats producing an inferior product. All of that brought boom-bust cycles that left the industry reeling.

From such Wild West frontier chaos, the Alaskans reported, came a groundswell appetite for allocating the quota into negotiable shares, which — together with industry-financed buyouts — quickly concentrated fishing capacity, produced a sane flow of fish, dependable jobs for the survivors, and six-figure incomes for crew.

Crab, a $500 million industry in Alaska, was the most recent fishery to go over to catch share "rationalization" in 2005.

Minor reported that 266 boats were winnowed to 80 through catch shares, but the smaller fleet fishes five months a year rather than the two weeks it previously took the bigger fleet to claim a year's quota.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or via e-mail at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com