Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Science vs Barons of the Fish Business

"The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them." President Barak Obama. At this point, we need a refresher for the thousands of new appointees in the Obama administration who may not have been following the demise of the ocean resources.

The 'Lindy II' is a model of efficiency and selective fishing methods. (Photo by John Finley of Kodiak, owner.)

Maybe they noticed there are very few fishing boats down in the harbor anymore, and maybe they associate it with global warming or the foreign fleets, or just a general disinterest in bouncing around the ocean anymore. So let's have a little refresher course.

President Obama's statement would seem to indicate the tide will turn on those few fish companies who are trying, and currently succeeding, in eliminating the independent fisher/businessman. Sure, these companies use fishermen too, if you can call sharecroppers fishermen; the skippers and crew who are sworn to silence about their activities on the fishing grounds for the chance to supply the company store. Just try interview a trawl crew in the whiting fishery off Neah Bay, Washington, or a pollock skipper, mate, or deck crewman in the Bering Sea, much less get a ride-along.

This is what a Federal Judge recently had to say: "Harrington also served notice that an era of "window dressing" respect for the legitimate concerns of the governed fishing industries and their states would no longer be tolerated." Judge Harrington was referring to the National Marine Fisheries Service and their 'Councils' and their disregard for science and common sense.

It is apparent that the two trawl fisheries mentioned above are not conducive to family fishermen, subsistence and sport users, the many other species of fish in the ocean, or the coastal communities. The problem is that these giant factory trawlers, and many independent trawlers fishing for shore plants with 'legal rights to process a certain % of the total catch,' don't mind snuffing out all other species of sea life. The big fishery in the Bering Sea is the pollock fishery, prosecuted by mid-water trawlers. That would seem to be a safe way to fish. Just scoop up the schools of pollock, leaving plenty behind for replenishment of the stocks. (Except that half the pollock fishery is right before propogation and the pollock never get to sow the seeds of the next generation.)

The first mates on these 'death star' ships are scanning the ocean with electronic equipment, a process they liken to submarine hunting. It's fun. And it's been profitable for the 'designated owners' of the pollock (and the crab). Many times, the electronics are indicating the wrong kind of fish; fish that they are not permitted by law to keep. So down goes the nets and up comes millions of pounds of squid, king salmon, chum salmon, halibut, herring and anything else that lives in proximity to the pollock. It's not like they all live in separate apartments. You clean out one apartment and you get a mixed bag of occupants. Remember, the trawl nets are like pulling a football field-sized sieve sideways through the water, with everything in that amount of space for miles squeezed into a 'sock' on the end of the net. (I won't even go into bottom trawling where Oregon State University researchers found that it extinguishes 30% of the species complex where they have been.)

There has been discussions by the Western Alaska Natives on the blogs of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Anchorage Daily News on this subject. The problem is that they live on the salmon that have to swim past all these trawl nets, and not very successfully as it turns out. For their food supply, they don't need a small fraction of the dead salmon that gets thrown over the side of the trawlers. (And this is a problem the whiting fishery has off the coast of Oregon and Washington too. The lack of water in CA, and Dick Cheney and Pacific Power doing in the Klamath R. king salmon, isn't the only reason the West Coast troll fishery had to close. Again, it was the small guys who had to bite the bullet.)

It hasn't been 'politically correct' to point out these truths. You will notice the fisheries managers on the Yukon River won't criticize their peers managing the Bering Sea fisheries. Same as down here in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife won't criticize the Pacific Fisheries Management Council for intercepting their king salmon. (Did I hear the ODFW Commissioner had a barbecue for these Council folk?) The family fishermen have to stop fishing AGAIN to accomodate the big fish barons, in this case the owner of Pacific Seafoods.

And why would that owner testify on a little issue like non-selective fishing practices in the main channel of the Columbia River? There are hardly any fish caught commercially in-river anymore: it's a glorified sport fishery for a few. But it's supported by the big fish baron as a matter of principle. He is majorly involved in midwater and bottom trawling on the West Coast and doesn't want anyone to get a toehold in the by-catch/nonselective fishing issue.

This same virulence is manifesting itself in Alaska in the form of the owner of Trident Seafoods, who said he will shut down his plants if he doesn't get the Pacific ocean perch. (Politicians don't realize that if he gets those fish he will use the biggest trawler possible and none of the benefit will touch Alaska. As opposed to a large fleet of community based boats targeting the POP selectively, and leaving the ecosystem intact as well.) I've butted heads with this company and came out on the losing end. We were flying Pacific cod to Korea and Trident told the fishermen to stop supplying us or they could kiss home heating fuel good-by. That was in January. Does anybody still believe the big fish buyers/processors/marketers support the idea of 'community?'

The NMFS has allowed these overlords to regulate themselves, using lobbyists to man the Management Councils, in much the same way the financial sector was allowed to police themselves. In case anyone needs to be told in the most basic terms, there is a reason much of coastal America is without fish. It doesn't just happen and it started way before global warming. There was no global warming when Hume built a cannery at the mouth of the Rogue River in Oregon, intercepted the runs for canning purposes, started a newspaper to justify all of it, got himself elected to the Oregon Legislature to fight for his sole right to the fish, and even sent men to the spawning grounds upriver to get the spawners for their eggs. Sound familiar?

Maybe the heart of the issue is the political correctness that we are now saddled with that keeps the status quo rolling right over the disadvantaged. Has anyone ever looked into the melding of Marxism and Freudism at the Frankfurt Institute for Marxism for the explanation to why we just can't seem to stop all this foolishness? The boots on deck people are the last ones we should point a finger at in this, for the most part. They are paid peanuts for their fish, blackballed, regulated and threatened out, and could care less about political correctness. Remember when Khrushchev said that he didn't need to get into a war with us, that we would bury ourselves?

I would admonish that we really take President Obama's words as a license to demand that our public servants, the politicians and agency staff, do what Obama is calling for them to do. After all, they are working for us, not the other way around. I would say, speak up now if you value liberty. And given that the dry belt is moving northward, what if all the food and money is going away fast? (After I wrote this I saw in the Medford Mail Tribune that California is in a multi-decade record drought.)

Last year a friend said the Alaska Permanent Fund was at risk of evaporating and he was heckled for it. Guess what it's value is now compared to the start of 2008? And how can you wait for your stocks to appreciate when those companies are going out of business? Turns out much of business wasn't our friend. (Notice the banking lobbying effort to stop mortage refinances in court. Your friendly banker is knifing you in the back. One Congresswoman said Congress has been owned by the financial industry for too long.) There are tons of dots to connect. You'll see many businessmen cut and run, but some, like the fish barons, are digging in their heels with the view to carve an empire out of the chaos.

Ok, that's ten minutes worth, but I'll include a dedication of this article to a family member who turns 94 today. He managed one of the first two bottomfish operations in Alaska and always pointed to the risk of overharvest with non-selective fishing gear. He captained large Naval vessels in two oceans during WWII, pioneered in many areas of Alaska fishing, processing and marketing and has lived in Alaska all his life. If you know the fish business in Alaska you know who I'm talking about.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Action Plan for Alaska Fisheries

If you insert the Alaska comparable into this Action Plan, you have a pretty good blueprint for halting the demise of the Alaska fishing industry. There is no evidence that this industry isn't going the way of the other basic industries in this country, like the auto industry, or the steel industry, or fishing in California, Oregon and Washington. Commercial fishermen are like United Autoworkers Union members. It has been a good gig, but things changed. Business as usual is not sustainable or competitive. Either one is a killer for them and the communities they live in, and is darned dangerous for the country as a whole.

Alaska fihing action plan

With three Alaska born sons in three branches of the military now, I'm more sensitive to living a patriotic life here at home. I also think that this last Presidential election demonstrates the country's skepticism that $50 million 'fish boss' jets and demanding 'ownership' of ocean resources is synonymous with patriotism. Are the 'ownership rights' to fish in Alaska, especially by Japanese companies, being wielded in a patriotic manner? Is what is being demanded, and promised, is change. Change to what? Look at this blueprint and see if you can improve on it, with the country in mind, not individual pocketbooks.

The conversation needs to be dominated by more of the former and less of the latter. We hear alot about global warming and coral reef extinction, and fish stocks around the world collapsing. We tend to lose focus on our problems at home of spawning stream and river degradation and destruction of the ocean bottom with trawls, for example. I lived in Israel for a short time and I guarantee that the Israelis do things right, because their survival is at stake. Well, ours is at stake now.

We can't automatically talk about economic recovery; we dropped to our knees for a reason. There won't be an economic recovery if we keep making SUVs with big V-8s and keep snuffing the life out of our streams and the bottom of our oceans. Otherwise the lessened amount of money we can generate will continue to flee overseas in a greater percentage all the time, making it harder to recover still. The following article was published anonymously in Ahab's Journal, as the author was "speaking on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to talk to the media."


President-elect Barack Obama, Governor-elect Beverly Perdue, the United States Congress, and the North Carolina General Assembly have an unique opportunity to assist the commercial fishing communities that harvest carefully managed, sustainable marine resources, provide wholesome, healthy food to U.S. consumers, and lend support to local, state, and national economies.

At a time when food prices are high, when public concern over food safety is rising, and when jobs are disappearing, the United States Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly can adopt forward-looking policies that support thriving, socially-just, and environmentally-sound commercial fishing communities at relatively little cost.

With a straightforward shift in policy, the future of the small, independent family-owned and family-operated commercial fishing businesses that have been the hallmark of the North Carolina fishery can be secured.

A bold vision of economic, social, and environmental sustainability for traditional coastal communities will strengthen the vital connection between harvesters, consumers, and healthy oceans and coastal waters, as opposed to fostering an anonymous food production system with little accountability.

On the federal level, a shift in policy can be accomplished through amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the framework for management of United States fisheries in federal waters.

*Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to allow flexibility in rebuilding American fisheries.

Magnuson currently requires federal fishery management councils to rebuild fish stocks to healthy, sustainable levels in the shortest time possible, not exceeding 10 years in most cases.

This rigid rebuilding schedule doesn’t allow councils to minimize the adverse socioeconomic impacts of harvest regulations on fishing communities, even though the councils are directed to minimize adverse impacts under national standard eight in Magnuson.

Adding just a few years to the recovery deadline can often mean the difference between the survival and the collapse of commercial fishing infrastructure, such as docks, processing plants, and fish houses.

Congressman Walter B. Jones introduced the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act (HR 4087) in 2007, and Congressman Frank Pallone (NJ) introduced a nearly identical bill (HR 5425) in 2008. Both bills attracted bipartisan support, and Congressman Pallone is expected to introduce a similar bill in the 111th Congress.

*Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act to strengthen measures to prevent the adverse socioeconomic consequences of Limited Access Privilege Programs on small harvesters and on fishing communities.

Under Limited Access Privilege Programs, sometimes called Individual Fishing Quotas or Rationalization Plans, the total harvest quota for a fish species is divided into quota shares that are allocated by the government to individual fishermen or corporations based on a history of past landings in specific years – those with higher past landings of a species are allocated more shares, while some fishermen will not qualify for shares.

After the initial allocation, the shares can be sold, bought, or leased. The idea is that the market then resolves the issue of who gets to fish.

Huge social justice issues surround the use of these systems. In the initial allocation of quota shares, the federal government grants an asset to a relatively small group of fishermen who then essentially “own” or control future participation in the fishery.

While fishermen who are lucky enough to qualify for large initial harvest shares gain new wealth under Limited Access Privilege Programs, other fishermen face additional hardship, i.e. the expense of buying or leasing shares if they want to continue in or enter into the fishery.

Researchers in Alaska have found that rationalization programs carry harsh consequences for smaller, remote fishing villages, where the generational aspect of commercial fishing is broken as shares are sold to individuals or companies outside of the villages.

A Government Accountability Office study of Individual Fishing Quotas found that the easiest way to protect the economic viability of fishing communities is to “allow fishing communities to hold harvesting quota and decide how this quota is to be used.”

Magnuson authorizes federal fisheries managers to assign quota shares to fishing communities and to regional fishery associations, but the eight federal fisheries councils have not proposed alternatives to Individual Fishing Quotas that undermine fisheries for scores of coastal communities.

*Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to require referendums in which fishermen in the regions managed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council must approve a Limited Access Privilege Program, as currently required for fisheries managed by the New England and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils.

*Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to include a minimum standard for “best available scientific information.”

National standard two in Magnuson states that conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available. In other words, biological and socioeconomic data can be sketchy or not representative of all gear types or regions, but if that is all that is available, it qualifies for use in federal fishery management plans.

*Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to establish a grant program or low-interest loan program to protect and enhance waterfront access for commercial fishermen.

As coastal populations have increased, less waterfront land has been available for commercial fishing docks, boat slips, and fish houses. Senator Susan Collins (Maine) introduced the Working Waterfront Preservation Act in 2007, and a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House last year.

In addition to amending Magnuson, the U.S. Congress can take other steps to secure the future of small, independent family-owned and family-operated commercial fishing businesses in North Carolina and other coastal states.

*Pass the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act.

North Carolina commercial fishermen have not benefited from free trade agreements and the growth of the global seafood market. Low-cost competition from seafood imports from Asia and Latin America countries with little or no environmental, food safety, and worker-safety oversight has resulted in stagnant or even plunging ex-vessel prices paid to domestic commercial harvesters.

As U.S. shrimp imports grew from 264,207 metric tons in 1996 to 556,936 tons in 2007, prices paid to North Carolina shrimpers dropped from $2.54 to $1.88 per pound.

More than 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. in 2007 was imported.

The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act (TRADE) lays out a process for the review and renegotiation of existing trade agreements and the reform of the negotiating process and policies. The bill (S 3083, HR 6180) was introduced in June 2008, and drew more than 80 cosponsors, including Congressmen Walter B. Jones and Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

*Oppose offshore aquaculture legislation that does not protect the environment, human health, and coastal economies.

At the request of the Bush administration, several versions of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act have been introduced in Congress. The current administration has promoted offshore aquaculture as the remedy for the nation’s $8 billion seafood trade deficit, despite the absence of information on the economic feasibility of offshore operations and despite environmental, food safety, and local economic concerns.

*Secure federal Saltonstall-Kennedy funds to strengthen the North Carolina commercial fishing industry.

These funds come from duties imposed on seafood imported into the U.S. Funds could be used for marketing, developing value-added seafood products, protecting and enhancing waterfront access points for commercial fishermen, and other projects.

*Secure federal funds from the Market Access Program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service to support the overseas marketing of North Carolina seafood.

*Federal permitting or leasing for activities in offshore waters must be consistent with state coastal policy.

In addition to offshore fish farming, projects like wind farms, wave and tidal energy operations, and oil and gas drilling, and conservative efforts like marine sanctuaries, marine protected areas, or “no-fishing zones”, are likely to be proposed for federal waters off the coast of North Carolina. A strong state coastal policy could protect the state’s commercial fishermen.

*North Carolina commercial fishermen must be recognized as important stakeholders in the development of ocean management policy in North Carolina.

As activities in coastal waters increase, the odds are great that North Carolina commercial fishermen could see important, traditional fishing grounds in state waters placed off-limits.

*Receipts from the sale of North Carolina standard commercial fishing licenses and retired standard commercial fishing licenses should be deposited in special, dedicated trust funds to fund research, education, marketing, waterfront access and other projects that benefit commercial fishermen.

These funds could be set up in a manner similar to the trusts created for coastal recreational fishing license receipts.

*Establish a continuing North Carolina grant program or low-interest loan program to protect and enhance waterfront access for commercial fishermen.

As coastal populations have increased, less waterfront land has been available for commercial fishing docks, boat slips, and fish houses. One-third of the fish houses in North Carolina closed in the years from 2000 through 2006. In many instances, those closures left commercial fishermen with no boat slips and no unloading docks. The Waterfront Access and Marine Industry Fund created in 2007 will assist commercial fishermen in several communities, but many coastal towns and counties still lack public docks.

*Create regional seafood development associations in North Carolina to increase the economic value of North Carolina seafood.

North Carolina seafood must become a strong brand name, recognized on state, national, and international levels, if the state is to accrue the highest possible economic, environmental, cultural, and consumer benefits from its marine resources.

Regional seafood development associations were authorized by the Alaska legislature in 2004. That legislation could be a template for similar legislation in North Carolina.

In Alaska, these non-profit associations are created only with the approval of licensed fishermen in a region, are managed by licensed fishermen, and are funded by an assessment on harvests as well as by state and federal grants.

Development associations would help increase the demand for and the value of North Carolina seafood by developing promotional activities, developing more value-added products, developing more seafood processing facilities, developing and protecting commercial off-loading facilities and other infrastructure, improving harvest quality, developing innovative direct marketing systems, and other projects.

*Enforce truth in labeling laws on restaurant menus or require country-of-origin labeling for seafood products sold in restaurants to protect seafood consumers.