Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Community Fisheries

" US Secretary of State John Kerry sounded the alarm Monday on the perils facing the world's oceans, calling for a global strategy to save the planet's life-giving seas.
"Let's develop a plan" to combat over-fishing, climate change and pollution, Kerry urged as he opened a two-day conference in Washington bringing together world leaders, scientists and industry captains."

How can structural change in industry participation in the management of fisheries ensure sustainability? Much of the media is reporting the National Marine Fisheries Service assertion that more stocks are being rebuilt all the time. This trivializes the collapse of a number of very iconic and economic valuable fish populations like East coast cod, North Pacific halibut and Alaska king and chum salmon. The TV reality show, 'Deadliest Catch,' belies the fact that it is filmed in one of the only remaining areas of Alaska waters that have any king crab left at all. Dozens of stocks of that very valuable link in the marine food chain, Pacific herring, have vanished.

The situation is not getting any better, with salmon seiners and longliners taking fish in closed waters all the time. One comment I heard about the apprehending of a noted longliner, one who was favored to be the HEAD of the National Marine Fisheries Service, was that now all the boats ............. will be throwing their plotters overboard. Of course the electronic plotters carry a record of where they have been fishing. And then there are the mid-water trawlers who scoop up squid by the tens of millions of pounds, king and chum salmon by the tens of thousands of individuals, and even herring, in their quest for a very low valued fish that they have a permit to catch and sell. And the bottom trawlers who, according to Oregon State University researchers, extinguish 30% of the species complex of the bottom area they drag their nets over.

The outgoing Chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is an Alaskan from a Western Alaska village. You'd think there could be some restraint with his presence. What we heard when the king salmon by-catch was set so high by the 'Council,' was Eric Olsen stating, "This isn't over." However he voted for the high by-catch rate. Why was that? I do know that when I worked in the Commercial Fisheries Development office in Juneau, the boss said the lobbyist for the big fish companies come around and threaten anyone's job that gets out of line.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council calls itself the 'Council Family.' So does the Gambino or Columbo organizations. You get the point. Iterating the problem and offering an alternative isn't going to make the problem go away. There are thousands of people in the Alaska fishing industry alone who rely on the system's status quo. And they donate to political campaigns and have lots and lots of lobbyists.

I just came back from the East Coast and a visit to an old fish blogger friend who had given up on fish. My posts here are getting fewer and farther apart as well. Other leading transparency and fairness advocates in the fisheries have all but given up jousting at windmills too. There are still commentators on fish issues to fill the airwaves and newsprint, but they don't fall into the transparency and fairness category for one good reason, there isn't any money in being a lone crusader. There is no organization for economic fainess and sustainability. maybe John Kerry can get one going, but I'm not holding my breath.

So getting back to the lack of an organizational structure for community minded fishermen and fish advocates, the NPFMC recently told the crab fishermen in Nome that they needed a platform to get together and resolve the issue of limiting entry into that fishery. There is no danger to the fishery with the overall catch limit in place. The only risk is to the bigger boats that might have a hard time catching enough fish to sustain their higher overhead operations. Is that a reason for Washington D.C. to get involved? This is a classic need for collaboration on the local level. And there is a solution.

I've outlined the Regional Seafood Development Association program of the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development before. Whatever people think of Ex-Governor Murkowski, he implemented this program administratively, coincidentally right after I wrote a 15 page letter to him. Several of the richest fishing areas of Alaska have joined the program to help the fishermen in those areas now. In Bristol Bay, the immediate beneficial impact amounted to an increase in value of fishermen's catch of three million dollars a year. Prince William Sound is following suit.

Why aren't more areas of Alaska seeing the light? Well, it's hard for such fiercely independent folk like fishermen to join forces for one thing. For another, some folk that put themselves up as fishermen's representatives are mostly looking for a paycheck or a feather in their cap, both being socially acceptable these days. These folk aren't much interested in a democratically oriented organization.

In Kodiak, for example, some folk are seeking a quota of fish for 'community purposes.' Of course they would administer it and charge fishermen 5 to 10% just to get some of that quota. In an RSDA, fishermen pay a small fraction of that, which is collected by the State and paid back to the organization's elected leaders to promote ongoing and future programs. If the Feds or the State gave a fish allotment to an individual region, the fishermen and the communities would do vastly better with an RSDA as a platform for administering it.

That's it in a nutshell. I've talked about RSDAs on this blog before and it's all here. In Kodiak, about half the fishermen are leaning toward a community quota as proposed by a couple of folks so they have a job. The other half aren't so sure. None that I've heard of know of the benefits of RSDAs. There was one attempt to explain it to them that I know of and a dragger lobbyist shot down the idea, confusing it with goundfish cooperatives, and the presenter didn't rebut it. A RSDA doesn't need to include all gear groups in a region for one thing. But the State hasn't been very forthcoming about the advantages of the program either. And Kodiak Marine Expo organizers haven't made much of an attempt to invite program managers in Juneau to speak to the subject either.

It's a big issue in Kodiak now that the draggers are scooping up everything and much of it is done by factory ships that head back to Seattle. When the vast Pacific ocean perch stocks were being given away, no thought was given to the economy of Alaska. And I don't know where the Alaska representatives on the Council were then either. The current administration has been terrible for Alaska fishermen. On the other side of the that coin, a former Yakutat leader who is running for Governor protected the herring stocks in Yakutat Bay from overharvest by a big Seattle fish company. I was there at the time. That was in 1971. The company was critical of him for shutting down the herring roe fishery in that bay, and being a naive college student and 'company man,' I went along with the 'company line.'

I recently saw a special on our first astronaut, and he was selected for good reason. He used the term "our best thoughts" to characterize the challenge to move forward successfully. This is a good time for fishermen in Kodiak and elsewhere to use 'their best thoughts' to solve their and their communities' problems in accessing fish stocks sustainably and processing them locally.

Community minded fishermen often need help from community minded public servants. I must say that Mr. Mallot is the only community leader I've seen stick up for his community. I'm talking about 'gittin 'er done,' not just making a show of it. Wouldn't that be a change from recent history, to get a Alaska governor who cared about coastal Alaska and the continuity of the traditions that build the towns to begin with.

Some of these traditions entailed hard work and a lot of personal involvement. Maybe it's not well known that in Southeast Alaska, some Alaska Natives built their own seiner-longliners. I for one would sure like to see a turnaround in the direction coastal Alaska is going.