Monday, June 29, 2009

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou Quota Shares?

Sometimes a real fired up piece shows up on the Internet, such as this from Montauk, that deserves to be framed. I will add one thing; one of the two skippers who went to D.C. to testify long ago against the crew, declared his sincere regret for that testimony as he lay dying.

"When the Individual Fishermen's Quota system was being debated in Alaska there was a massive effort to placate crew, and some concerned skippers, that crew would be taken care of. There was no provision anywhere in the statutes to recognize thousands of career fishermen's rights to future participation, because they weren't an all-seeing, all-powerful boat OWNER.

The National Marine Fisheries Service traveled around Alaska assuring everyone that the crews would be the beneficiaries of a tens of millions of dollars "Displaced Fishermen's Fund." If there was such a pot of money to get those NMFS guys so fired up it sure disappeared fast. If you Google search that fund now it directs you to the state labor department. And everyone knows, except for maybe the folk who pulled this bait and switch, that fishermen are 'independent contractors' in the eyes of the IRS and not eligible for state assistance.

It was told by one fisherman in Kodiak who was keeping track, that 80% of the 'jobs at sea' went away when catch shares/IFQs came to town. I remember the days just prior to this, in the ports in Alaska, when the bars would be hopping and the economic multiplier effect was more like a mosquito hatch on the tundra in June. Was overcapitalization occurring in the harvesting sector? Maybe, but nobody was going bust except the usual ones who shouldn't have been out there in the first place. In Alaska, however, just the talk of more privatization in the post salmon-limited-entry period, got the gold fever going real good and all kinds of odd folk got boats. All this robustness came to a screeching halt when halibut and black cod IFQs came in.

The majority of IFQ owners soon were out-of-state residents. The more agressive boat owners bought up small blocks of IFQs wherever they could get them. They figured they would rise in value like gold in wartime, and they did. Newer entrants had a harder time still getting into the fisheries. As human nature is, the boat owners found a new way to grow their business besides that.

They then started requiring potential crew to go out and buy IFQs to bring on board to even get a job. And of course all crew percentages started to take a dive as skippers' loan payments for IFQs rose. At maturity, the IFQ/catch share system, allows the owner of the 'shares' to lease out his shares to someone who will share-crop them.

Basically, the wealth is being siphoned out of the fishing regions and fleeing to nice places to live all over the world. This is especially true in the trawl sector, especially the owners of multiple vessels. Who sometimes own shore processing plants.

Then you get one who buys a $50 million business jet and flies politicians all over the place, especially to good fishing lodges. At this point you have huge cash flow and can get your people in as Congressional aides. Who in turn write white papers (or just put new names on others' papers) and walk them over to any agency in D.C.

As that all transpires, these 'fishermen' cum processors, put plans in motion to gain private rights to the fish for their plants as well as their boats. If you doubt this can happen look at the effect of lobbying on healthcare, banking, or credit reporting agencies. If these processors, can start to control whole fleets through fear of blackballing, they have no fear of competing lobbyists.

Now, you might say that scientific management of the fisheries will shore up the whole coastal economy, because the law requires it. That fishermen will take a vested personal interest in maintaining healthy fish stocks. Not!!! Anyone who doesn't think fisheries management runs on raw political bargaining is smoking crack.

It's the rare reporter who writes on this subject for the major media (this here is strictly commentary). It's complicated first of all, and you don't want to be on the outs with these big players if you draw a salary. Organizations and agencies don't stick their neck out, especially to protect anyone. (Maybe with NOAA calling for a national review of NMFS enforcement lapses, honesty, truth and justice will reign finally. Good luck on that.) And some fishing magazine editors have received their reward and gone to work for the big processor (in the office tower, not the sky).

To this day, folks who band together under the processor banner, look for plants to buy for their 'production history.' Or they advance the fiction that they are boxing and marketing their catch to 'grandfather' into this when processor quotas happen. Did we hear that a big West Coast processor bought a plant on the East Coast now? It's significant who that processor is. Their banker would be well aware of these plans, as a free chunk of the commons would vastly increase the value of the company. You could expect the banking lobby in D.C. to get behind this as well.

So, 'catch shares' has a history of morphing into processor shares and share-cropping fishermen, unemployed hordes of crew and skippers, empty boat harbors and a flight of small shore-side businesses, and in Alaska's case anyway, plundered and wantonly wasted stocks of fish. This is fact, not theories like that 'vested interest' malarkey from people who have never been around the ports.

The next time you hear Jane Lubchenco say we need 'catch shares' to save the fish, simply ask her what makes her think that. There is nothing new under the sun in fisheries, just a willful ignorance of the facts makes some things look new and appealing. And for Heaven's sake, don't listen to Alaska Rep. Don Young. The current system he supports has 'fired' the majority of Alaska fishermen, given over half the processing/marketing opportunity of Bering Sea stocks to Japanese companies, and wiped out the king crab and king salmon for the most part.

Those stocks were especially vulnerable to the "Rise of the (Fish Factory) Machines" that Don oversaw. If the reader has any interest in the future, don't take Don's advice. He has his anchor out in the the past with a good ten to one scope on it. The only thing I can say about Don winning his last election is that Alaska voters are maybe like Alaska bachelor men, the odds are good, but the goods are odd. When I lived in Alaska I voted for Don once or twice, but I no longer eat the milk of simplicity, but the meat of the truth.

Remember, the big money is in marketing. The big players love privatization as it helps them abuse price transferring. This siphons the wealth out of the U.S. in a BIG way, like IFQs do on a regional basis. The good fish products we produce goes overseas for value adding and product laundering. We import 80% of our fish now, and lots of it is suspect farmed fish. Wouldn't it be nice if our kids could jump in a economical boat and go out and catch something to support their families. The fish and the coastal economies don't need more of the same, sold as something new.

A whole new look at how we do oceans is in order. Just peruse for a wee bit, a blog from someone on the front lines. He still leans forward when he walks, hence proving the old saying that if it ever stopped blowing in Western Alaskan everyone would fall down."