Alaska groundfish closure cuts deep in fishing community

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
May 12, 2015

After speaking last week with Julie Bonney from the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak, I thought I had an idea of how devastating the financial impact is expected to be of the groundfish shutdown under the new chinook bycatch quota rules.

But this week I talked to Robert Krueger, executive director of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, and found out I was wrong. It’s worse – a lot worse.

Doubtless many government officials will say that the impact on fishermen is not drastic, but the numbers are scary, calling to mind words and phrases like “worst nightmare,” “decimation” and “end of the industry as we know it.”

The rule, for those who don’t know (that is, folks not from Alaska), took effect on 1 January 2015. It states that there are only so many chinook salmon fish allowed to be pulled in as bycatch, or sectors of Gulf of Alaska fisheries will have to shut down. The limit for pollock fisheries is 18,600 fish, and 3,900 for non-pollock gear fishers. Of that 3,900, cod and flatfish fishermen were allowed to pull up just 2,700 chinook salmon as bycatch to trigger a shutdown.

At noontime on 3 May, that’s exactly what happened. Now, target species quota is being left behind, or as Krueger put it, “stranded.” Pacific cod fishermen are right now losing out on 10,355 metric tons (MT) of remaining quota. The remaining flatfish quota is 68,000 MT of arrowtooth flounder, which Bonney said last week the industry has been working to build up a market for; 3,600 MT of deep-water flatfish; 18,500 MT of shallow-water flatfish (rock sole); 14,500 MT of flathead sole and 5,300 MT of Rex sole. All of that quota, Krueger said, is “stranded.”

To be fair, I should note here that these figures only represent the total quota remaining, and even Krueger acknowledged there was no guarantee that the fisheries would fish to that quota limit over the summer and fall were they allowed to do so, but now they can’t even try.

It’s also fair to note that pollock fishermen are still allowed to catch target species such as cod as bycatch, and can even sell up to 20 percent of what they land of those species. In addition, other fisheries that finish their season in October with chinook bycatch quota left might be able to “roll over” their quota into the groundfish fishery, allowing late-season fishing of target species.

But that’s a small comfort to Krueger, who talks about the season as though it’s already over, and for those vessels that typically fish in the summer and early fall, it is.

“They’re done,” he said. “They are tied up.”

Worse, the only real non-pollock fishery still operating, rockfish, has a mere 1,200-chinook bycatch limit before it gets shut down, too, and if that happens, what little groundfish wholesale and processing operations are still going on may be done in.

“We already lost the cod fishery, we already lost the flatfish fishery. If we lose the rockfish fishery, well, then people are going to start closing up shops,” Krueger said.

Like Bonney, Krueger can’t say exactly what will happen to the businesses that rely on groundfish, but even the best-case scenario won’t be good news. Bonney cited estimates by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a regional fishing management group set up by U.S. federal law to manage fisheries in the area. The council’s report found that shutting down the fishery this soon could cost USD 28.5 million in lost revenue to the fisheries and the economies that depend on them. Krueger called that figure “a dramatic underestimate.” The shutdown affects absolutely everyone, including fuel companies, banks that hold loans for small businesses or vessels, small communities that live and die by how well the fishery does — everyone.

It didn’t have to come to this. Krueger said what needed to happen was, along with the new rule, there needed to be a new set of regulatory “tools.” That would include, among many other things, a realistic bycatch management plan that included quotas for target species, not just bycatch, and allocated quotas per vessel.

That, Krueger said, would prevent the “race for fish” that causes a few vessels to hit the bycatch limit for the whole fishery and ruin it for everyone. With such rules in place, “Then you have realistic expectations.” Krueger said he and fellow seafood industry leaders in Alaska have been pushing for such a tool package since the early 2000s, when the bycatch limit idea first came up.

So why does Alaska now have the limit and not the tools? Part of the problem, both Bonney and Krueger said, is politics, though neither blames a specific person. The new chinook bycatch rule is the brainchild of the council. State officials are not directly involved, though six of the 11 members of the council are from Alaska, and traditionally state officials, most notably the governor’s office, have over the years had varying degrees of influence over who gets named to those six positions.

It’s never been a direct or official relationship, but when a major shift in power happens at the gubernatorial level, it causes a ripple effect that can stall or sometimes stop new fishery regulations. Such was the case in 2008 when Sarah Palin was elected, and again last fall, when incumbent Sean Parnell was beaten by independent Bill Walker. In both cases, the new administration put fishery reforms on hold, including comprehensive packages like the management tools Krueger wants to see.

So now Krueger, like Bonney, is fielding countless phone calls from anxious fishermen, processors and community members all worried about the future, and they should be. Even if the council agrees at its meeting in October to pursue the new tools Krueger wants, he estimates it will take a good year to work out the details of what the tools will look like, then another year or two to get through the red tape of putting them into action.

“There’s no hope for anything to happen at this October meeting that would fix this immediately,” he said.

Krueger said he and the rest of the seafood community in the Gulf of Alaska are now holding their collective breath, hoping that there will be something left of the groundfish industry and not too many people left be out of work by the time the regulations stabilize.

“Ultimately that’s the path we’re going down unless the council fixes it,” he said. “We knew that it was going to happen, we’ve been saying it was going to happen, and it’s happened.”

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