Thursday, March 06, 2014

Council Business or Monkey Business

Two things are on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council's mind these days, splitting up the loot in the Gulf of Alaska and the dumping of multitudes of species that the trawlers and longliners catch secondary to their target species. I first have to scratch my head at the underlying disconnect between reality and the original intent of the Magnuson-Stevens Marine Fisheries Management and Conservation Act of 1976 of using professional fishermen to man the management council for their expertise.

Full-time, boots-on-deck fishermen just don't have the time for the homework and travel. Fishermen's organizations get their lobbyists to represent them on the Council if they are a big enough organization. The little fishermen's organizations rarely are represented. And lots of the business of the council is geared to tell which fishermen can go fishing and which can't. That's part of the current Council agenda, and always will be.

The Gulf of Alaska is a massive area and some fish stocks, like the Pacific ocean perch, is still up for grabs. Now that's a real simplistic way of explaining a massively complicated situation that few people understand. And those Councilors are being paid by someone, of course. But in the current give-away, there seems to be some room to give a few crumbs to the little guys in that iconic fishing port, Kodiak. Maybe it could be part of the grand bargain. And the Alaska Marine Conservation Council is lining up the steer things Kodiak's way. Or maybe partly their way, if they get to manage the program.

The thing that worries me about AMCC is that they have stood by all these years while the family fishermen were getting shut out. They sure haven't been getting their funding from family fishermen. I was just watching a Matt Damon movie about fracking and how the gas company used both a front man and a fake environmental organization to influence a town. Got me a little worried about AMCC. After all, when a friend penned the Pacific cod regulations for State waters in the Gulf and they were mostly adopted, the AMCC took credit for it.

Drop back in time to 1991 when I penned the outline for the current Regional Seafood Development Association program while in the employ of the then State Department of Commerce. and Economic Development. I watched it get strong-armed, co-opted, stalled, and others taking credit for it. Governor Murkowski made it a state program when it looked like pink salmon fishermen were only going to get a little more than a thank-you for their fish. The model is well represented in the U.S. and across the globe. Several regions of Alaska have organized RSDAs. No need to reinvent the wheel.

But now AMCC is seemingly reinventing the wheel with their proposed Community Fishing Association idea. The specifics are fuzzy, well, because it's not a well tested model and one hasn't been done in Alaska. There is one in Cape Cod, but that is being supported by the heirs of Shell Oil and they don't have a multitude of gear groups. The Council has held workshops on it now. Giving a CFA to Kodiak, maybe run by AMCC, would give quota shares of some select fish stocks, the ones that aren't already spoken for that is, to a group of fishermen with recent history of fishing. Maybe not any pioneers of the fisheries like the other IFQ programs went. But that's another thing altogether. The big companies would get everything they wanted except for this little slice of the pie. And don't forget, a RSDA could be a CFA as a sideline.

Maybe a CFA would help, but I'm reminded of the old saw about the Dems and the Repubs. The Rebublicans propose a crappy program out of the blue where no fix is needed and the Dems counter-propose something less crappy to derail it and to maybe get some brownie points now that it's all the squawk. And that makes a tolerable situation worse. What if a CFA in Kodiak was just to quiet the dissent over a massive give-away and the little that Kodiak got wasn't enough. Unlike an RSDA, a CSA of limited scope would not be democratic, not be able to raise funds from it's membership automatically, or have much political clout. But then political clout isn't something anyone with it willingly hands over. You'd really see true colors come out if you proposed giving half the POP quota to longline and pot fishermen and let the trawlers have everything else. Not to mention dingtle-bar fishermen, which is probably the best way to catch them in terms of by-catch and efficiency.

You might be wondering why I mention Pacific ocean perch so much, a little known species, that's sent almost strictly to Japan. The Japanese know good fish, I guarantee. But the value of it all might be easily as much as the Bristol Bay salmon harvest and that's the thing to keep in mind. Think 'under the radar.' The foreign fleets, prior to the 200 mile limit law, took up to 700,000 metric tons a year. The stocks crashed and are now coming back strong.

That brings us back to how to ensure the community of Kodiak reaps some of this largess of nature they were founded on. God knows they need it: downtown Kodiak has gotten as bad off as all the other little coastal towns under the storm clouds of privatization, but nobody wants to address that. What is the right way forward? Although that statement probably gets lots of the same reaction as when I mentioned doing the right thing while working in State government: guffaws.

The real hot topic at the NPFM Council these days is by-catch, and that's because trawlers catch lots of the high value fish that are earmarked for other fishermen and the public, and those stocks are crashing. Sometimes the trawl industry will throw out a red herring, pardon the pun, and blame the stock crashes on the lack of an obscure herring-like fish that nobody could find much of anyway, going back many decades. The pot really shouldn't call the kettle black. The trawlers caught and dumped over 17 million pounds of squid one year, which are certainly king salmon food. Most of what the king salmon trollers use for an artificial bait looks just like a squid, down to the phosphorescent eyes.

And sometimes a trawler will catch a hundred tons of herring by accident and have to throw them back. They joke about the squid as being the bane of 'The Calamari Triangle.' The rest of the by-catch just gets a ho-hum. Even when they have caught up to around 400,000 salmon in a year. That was a bad year of course and isn't talked about. Maybe the reason the by-catch of king salmon has dropped is because they thinned them out so bad. I do have sources for these numbers and wish I could get officials to talk more. Or get more observer coverage on the decks of the trawlers. Very low coverage has been the norm, even though the public has been calling for full coverage for years.

I've covered much of this in my blog over a period of years. Nothing changes. An old running partner of mine just contacted me after decades of not much word with the announcement that he had to bail out of halibut fishing. There have been and are still lots of these little halibut fishing operations. With the current stock crash in halibut those quotas will all go real fast now to the big boats that grandfathered in and don't have Q payments. And you can project what will ultimately happen. Think Omega, that does all the menhaden fishing and processing on the East coast.

For a real eye-opener on halibut by-catch, go to the Tholepin blog. He has lots of pictures of what snow crab and halibut by-catch looks like. Maybe before the Council starts using bandaids like they are doing, they should do the economic impact analysis of it all that they promised many, many years ago. They would be bringing out the tourniquets instead. But of course anything useful they do now will highlight the political control the trawlers have over the Council. But don't feel bad, nobody has been able to get the big banks under control either.

The only hopeful note I can leave is that one key person in a big fish company I know told me "I don't agree with those guys." Meaning the upper management. So, go into the fish business if you got that burning desire, but have your eyes wide open. After all Sergeant York at first refused service in the U.S. Army during WWI, but then when he did feel the call to go in he became our most memorable hero of that war.