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Bottomfish brouhaha.

The crisis in the North Pacific can be narrowed down to a Gordian tangle of economic, social, biological and political issues. Who has rights to take America's largest remaining commonly owned fish resource, and who should be excluded? Should a big-money boat from Ballard, Wash., be allowed to take more fish from a bay 50 miles out of Kodiak than is a second-generation Kodiak fisherman? Should halibut longliners lose some of their fish to other fishermen who catch halibut incidentally by the thousands? Should limited entry be imposed, giving fishing rights only to those companies smart or flush enough to get into the bottomfish boom before the door slams shut?

America's got hold of the largest congregation of finfish in the world. Within our 200-mile limit, feeding off the mineral-rich nutrients that make the eastern Pacific continental shelf the most bountiful waters on the globe, an immeasurable biomass of fishes are gathered.

And those fish have got us by the gills.

Swamped with Success. When the United States claimed ownership of all resources within 200 miles of shore in 1976, the nation captured one of the seven wonders of the fisheries world: billions of dollars worth of pollock, cod, flatfish, rockfish, crab, shrimp, and a smattering of other species. The 200-mile-limit law, called the Magnuson Act, paved the way for increased American control over North Pacific groundfish fisheries, which were then dominated by foreign fishing companies. Americanization of groundfish happened fast - too fast, some say. Investments poured into the U.S. fishing and processing industry from all over: from Wall Street; from small U.S. companies confident of a future in seafood; and from Japan, Korea and Norway.

In 1980 there were no factory trawlers, and Trident Seafoods in Akutan, on the Aleutian chain, was still trying to prove that groundfish processing on shore could be a profit able enterprise. Today there are more than 70 factory trawlers and two dozen shore-based plants processing groundfish.

Billions of dollars were invested in the North Pacific fisheries in the 1980s. Shore plants attracted investment from some of the world's major fishing companies, including Japan's kingpins, Nissui and Tiayo. The factory trawler fleet swelled like a tick on a hunting dog.

Now the fishery is completely Americanized. There is more than enough harvesting and processing capacity to catch and process all 2.3 million metric tons of allocated groundfish in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. Most observers think the fishery is overcapitalized. In fact, fishermen and processors told the National Marine Fisheries Service last year that they would need as much as 5 million metric tons of groundfish to keep every boat and processing line operating year-round.

"Now we're not fighting Japan and Korea any more; we're fighting the next generation down,' says Nancy Munro, a longtime seafood industry observer who spent six years on the advisory panel to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Now we have to ask ourselves, 'Who gets the fish?"

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets allocations of all groundfish, except halibut, in the Gulf of Alaska and in the U.S. waters of the Bering Sea. Now before the council and volleying across every seaside barroom and gear group boardroom, heated debates focus on the multibillion-dollar question of who gets how much groundfish. Allocation Argument. This inshore/ offshore debate is the demon-child of the rapid growth in the groundfish fishery. Because the industry's demand for the resource exceeds availability, fishermen and processors are fighting to protect their investments, their livelihoods, their futures.

Factory trawlers take an estimated 87 percent of all groundfish in the Bering Sea. Shore-based processors, which depend on smaller vessels to deliver to shore, took only 13 percent in 1990. Although the Gulf of Alaska shore plants processed 90 percent of that area's 1990 groundfish allocations, their managers fear that the overcapitalized factory trawler fleet, after swallowing catch limits in the Bering Sea, will roar into the Gulf and suck up more. The limit then would be reached a lot faster, and shore plants could spend the last few months of the year standing idle while the big ships move on to other fisheries.

Shore-based processors and fishermen are asking for preferential treatment over factory ships when allocations are made. The shoreside plants claim these advantages: hiring more locals, using more of the fish, supporting Alaskan communities and balancing activities for year-round operation.

Factory ships are crying foul. Ship owners say that the industry, which was encouraged to develop the groundfish fisheries and has invested heavily in doing so, now faces penalties for being successful.

The factory trawler fleet has invested - and continues to invest - too much, say shoresiders. Chris Blackburn, president of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank and advocate for Kodiak's shoreside groundfish fleet, says, Nobody has been building shore-based trawlers-since the early 1980s.'

She adds, Anyone who would bet this fishery will go on forever at its current state just hasn't looked at the fluctuations in the stocks. We used to have 100 million pounds of herring. We had 100 million pounds of crab. You have to look at the future.'

Blackburn argues that an inshore preference makes sense because the groundfish fishery is now made up of two distinct fleets. You can't make regulations that will conserve the stocks and be good for the fisheries, because what's good for the inshore fleet may be very bad for the factory ships, or vice versa. Perhaps individual fishing quotas would be good for the factory trawl fleet, because they want to spread the fishing out over the year. But it (the quota system) wouldn't be good for shore-based vessels, because they want the flexibility to get in and out of a fishery easily. An inshore/offshore allocation would allow each fleet to be managed differently"

Three forms of shoreside preference have been proposed:

* The percentage of fish allocated to inshore and offshore processing would be set according to activity in the 1989 season. In the Gulf of Alaska, pollock would be split about evenly between inshore and offshore, while 87 percent of cod would go inshore and 13 percent would be allocated for offshore. In the Bering Sea, pollock would be allocated 34 percent inshore and 66 percent offshore; cod, 38 percent inshore and 62 percent offshore.

* Historic catches from 1986 through 1989 would determine the inshore/offshore split. This way, in the Gulf, pollock would be divided 69 percent inshore and 31 percent offshore; cod, 81 percent inshore and 19 percent offshore. In the Bering Sea, pollock would be split 59 percent inshore and 41 percent offshore; cod, 50-50.

In what's apparently the most popular among shoreside preference plans, 80 percent of historical joint venture catches would be given to inshore processors and 20 percent to offshore processors. In the Gulf of Alaska, all pollock and 80 percent of the cod would be allocated inshore. In the Bering Sea, both pollock and cod would be split 50-50.

If you guarantee 50 percent of the Bering Sea pollock to Dutch Harbor you're basically giving the U.S. groundfish resource to Japan,' says Bruce Buls, spokesman for the American Factory Trawler Association. The groundfish plants in Dutch are owned and controlled by two of Japan's largest surimi companies, Nippon Suisan and Taiyo. We don't think giving them control over the U.S. surimi industry would be good for the fishery, or for Dutch Harbor, or for Alaska.'

The factory trawler fleet, which refers to the shore-based processing industry in Alaska as Japan Inc.,' is not without significant foreign investment itself. A recent Government Accounting Office report revealed that 30 percent of the fleet was built or rebuilt in Norway, Japan or Korea. Total foreign investment in the fleet is unknown.

But the factory trawler fleet includes a wide diversity of 25 companies,' Buls says. There's healthy competition going on. The shore plants are basically two big companies who want guaranteed access to as much of the resource as they can get."

The factory trawler fleet is a blend of 100-foot to 350-foot vessels that can follow the fish around the Bering Sea, process continually, stay at sea for months at a time, and when harvest limits are reached, move to another area, such as the Gulf of Alaska or the unregulated international waters of the North Pacific.

Shore plants, on the other hand, need most fish delivered within 36 hours of harvest, and they can't just move somewhere else to fish when the season closes. Largely because shore plants have more available processing space than do factory ships, they usually have multiple processing lines, use more of the fish than do factory ships, and have greater flexibility to hand-fillet their incidental catches of flatfish or to produce a wider variety of finished product.

Doug Gordon is executive director of the American High Seas Fisheries Association, a group of about 26 former joint-venture vessel owners that now deliver both to shore and to at-sea processors. I think allocations should be made according to past history in the fisheries,' he says. 'If pollock and other groundfish species are fully subscribed, then obviously there are harvesters and processors on both sides that are dependent upon the fishery.

What I think gives one company a greater right to the fish is how committed they've been to the fishery in the past. And frankly, if the council wanted to manage it so the shorebased allocation was higher, they should base allocations on earlier catch histories, before most of the factory trawler fleet was around.'

The inshore/offshore debate has snagged the entire North Pacific fishing industry; even the longliners have joined the fray. Linda Kozak of the Kodiak Longline Vessel Owners Association says, "The longliners are very concerned about how the council would define an offshore vessel. We've got longliners fishing cod who may want to put a freezer on board. Would they be considered at-sea processors?"

Kozak says one of the market's most popular products right now is cod frozen at sea on the vessel. Some of our boats take advantage of that. They deliver halibut to shore for processing, but freeze their cod right on board. Generally, we're in favor of an onshore preference, but our concern lies in the definition,' she explains. Reining in the Rush. The capacity to process groundfish off Alaska is almost double the available groundfish harvest. The National Marine Fisheries Service recorded 19 new factory trawlers entering the fishery in 1990. A shakeout is expected, but who will be the losers is uncertain.

Last year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to consider a moratorium on entering the groundfish fisheries. It established a cutoff date of Sept. 15, 1990, and said that, if it ever does call a halt to new boats entering the groundfish fisheries, boats that as of that date weren't on their way to the Bering Sea (or under construction, or under contract to be built very soon) would probably be excluded from fishing rights.

At this point, any limited-entry program for all the groundfish fisheries is on the back burner until we deal with management programs for sablefish and halibut,' says Chris Oliver, an economist with the fishery management council. It's not that the moratorium has been forgotten, but it's not being dealt with until we can establish the future of sablefish and halibut management. The thinking is that whatever program is put in place for sablefish and halibut will be closely looked at for all the groundfish fisheries.'

Whisper the words "limited entry" in a crowd of Alaskan fishermen and watch the room fall silent. For the past 5 or 10 years, fishery managers have tried to encourage the longline fleet to consider some kind of limited entry program for sablefish and halibut. The industry has resisted pretty powerfully until now. Quotas to Qualify. Some say the solution to overcapitalization, the inshore/offshore debate, bycatch problems and future fisheries planning is to establish a fishery management program for groundfish that would divide available fish equitably among all deserving participants.

NPFMC is considering starting a fishing quota system for sablefish and halibut fishing in 1992. Although it hasn't committed itself to establishing individual fishing quotas, the staff now is analyzing how an individual fishing quota (IFQ) system would change an overcapitalized fishery.

Basically, an IFQ system involves cutting up the fishery like a pie and doling out portions to qualifying fishermen. The size of each portion would probably be calculated according to a fisherman's previous history in the fishery, which would reflect how much he or she depended on that fishery for a living.

Under an IFQ system, fishermen would have all year to catch and deliver their fish: no more 24-hour derbies, no more glut-or-famine halibut market. Fishermen could have more control over their fishing activity, and processors could schedule deliveries to coincide with highest prices or availability of processing workers.

The idea has some longliners howling. We understand the need to manage the fisheries equitably. We just don't think IFQs are the way to do it,' says the Kodiak Longliners' Kozak. Some people prefer to set up an IFQ system and then figure out how it should be managed. We'd prefer to figure out the best management system for the fishery, and then see if IFQs are really the best way to go.'

Longliners in Southeast Alaska seem to favor IFQs over other proposed allocation solutions. Overcrowding in the sablefish and halibut fisheries there has cut fishing days, has jammed the grounds and has threatened the quality of the product and safety of fishermen in recent years. But most Southeast longliners target only sablefish and halibut; Kodiak longliners also go after cod, and some gear up for trawling between longline seasons.

Setting up an IFQ system would basically be telling Kodiak fishermen they can't participate in fisheries in their own back yard,' Blackburn says. "Some local fishermen used to longline halibut and sablefish here, but went on to help develop the groundfish trawl fishery. But groundfish are not going to stay at their current levels. In the future, fishermen will need to diversify more than they do now.'

An IFQ program that doled out fishing quotas based on fishing activities in the late 1980s would exclude all fishermen who left longline fisheries to pioneer groundfish trawling in the Gulf, Blackburn says. Kodiak has always been on the leading edge of industry development. We'd support a moratorium on all new vessels or a program that would limit entry into all the groundfish fisheries, but only if our opportunity to move between fisheries is not hindered,' she explains.

Munro, whose company, Saltwater Inc., hires crews for factory ships and shore plants in the North Pacific, says any future groundfish management plan has to take into consideration the emotional aspect of fishing. She compares IFQs to coordinating the Iditarod sled dog race by assigning the winner beforehand.

A program that would tell each fishermen at the beginning of the season how much fish he was going to catch? Why bother? You've taken away any sense of achievement. I don't know the answer to it, but it's a very critical issue,' Munro adds.

Though some are concerned that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is moving toward IFQs prematurely, the council staff probably doesn't feel that way. It is charged with analyzing the numerous parameters an IFQ system might include and with assessing the effect of those parameters on the future of the fishery.

At this point we're still in the analyzing stage,' says staff member Oliver. We're studying all the different options for an IFQ system: Who would qualify for a quota? Would quotas be transferable, and if so, what stipulations should be attached? What if there were caps on ownership? How would initial quotas be set? How many years of past participation should be required to qualify?"

A final analysis will be presented to the council at its June meeting. According to Oliver, it's possible that IFQs also might someday be established for pollock and cod. 'It may even be probable. But at this point the council has its hands full with sablefish and halibut," he adds. Bycatch Bound. Nets coming up full of halibut caused trouble for groundfish fishermen in 1990. Every year, trawlers and longliners targeting pollock, cod and sablefish catch thousands of halibut, salmon and crab in their gear. This incidental catch, or bycatch, causes problems for fishery managers who regulate harvest levels of those species and for fishermen who depend on halibut, salmon or crab for their livelihood.

In 1989, halibut bycatch by groundfish fishermen became such a problem that the Canadian delegation to the International Pacific Halibut Commission stormed out of the commission's annual meeting, protesting the inability of the United States to decrease halibut bycatch by groundfish fishermen.

In 1990, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council set a halibut bycatch cap and required that groundfish fisheries be shut down when fishermen had caught the limit of prohibited species. (A prohibited species is one caught as bycatch outside of season or by a different gear than is allowable. Prohibited species must be thrown back.)

That 1990 bycatch cap shut down Gulf of Alaska pollock, cod and flatfish fisheries for four months for trawlers and for nearly six months for longliners. In the Bering Sea, it shut down trawling for nearly four months.

Bycatch closures were the fisherman's nightmare last year. Factory ships in the Bering Sea suffered heavy financial losses. Shore plants stood idle. Local fleets casting around for alternative fisheries were denied special fishery openings even though they promised to take bycatch observers and to quit when bycatch rates topped 3 prcent. At least one company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Shore-based and sea-based fishermen howled that the huge groundfish machine was being held hostage by the tiny halibut fishery.

The bycatch problem was one fire the whole industry could dance around. On-board observers, paid for by fishermen and spread throughout the fleets for the first time in 1990, charted bycatch rates for trawlers and longliners in the Bering Sea and the Gulf. Longliners, whose cod fishing seemed to bring in the highest halibut bycatch, concentrated on learning as much as they could about halibut behavior and how to avoid the fish.

We've made several changes this year we think will go a long way toward solving the bycatch problem,' Kozak says. For one thing, the council pushed back the sablefish season until May 15, and we're requesting the Halibut Commission open halibut fishing May 6. This will give us time to fish some of the halibut, will eliminate prospecting for halibut by sablefish fishermen, and hopefully will significantly decrease halibut bycatch.'

Kozak explains that halibut move toward shore in the spring, while sablefish stay deeper than 250 fathoms. By mid-May, there should be less intermingling between the species and longliners can fish 'cleaner." Longliners also have learned that using smaller hooks for cod and sablefish gives the larger halibut a chance to break off and get away.

Also this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council established a penalty box system for dirty' (high bycatch) fishing. Vessels observed with a higher-than-average bycatch rate will be cited by the National Marine Fisheries Service at the end of the season, and possibly fined or prosecuted.

Alaska's special assistant for fisheries, Clem Tillion, in January presented to the council a proposal to make halibut a bycatch-only fishery. His plan would divide a portion of the Alaska halibut harvest among longliners and trawlers, allowing longliners to deliver halibut to shore as a non-prohibited species. Trawlers could deliver their halibut to shore, too, but wouldn't get paid for it; proceeds would go to fund the program.

Kodiak trawlers might support that proposal. We think Tillion's going in the right direction," Blackburn says. His point is to put halibut on the market all year round and eliminate waste of fish. But we have two concerns: First is that the halibut taken as trawl bycatch are usually about 5 pounds. So it's up to the halibut fishermen to consider whether they'd want to open up a market for those undersized fish.

'Our second concern is that the program include incentives for trawlers to decrease bycatch mortality. Our estimated mortality rate is 50 percent of the halibut we catch. We've been working to improve handling techniques to reduce that, which basically gives us more groundfish allocations per halibut we take as bycatch. The incentive to improve has to be there.' Conservation Concerns. Fishermen who drag nets or line through the North Pacific motherlode of protein know the biomass is a blend of interrelated species. Plankton feed the fingerlings, which feed the larger fish, which feed the seabirds, which feed the sea lions.

Groundfish stocks flourish and decline according to nature's caprices, and so far fishery managers have set catch allocations conservatively enough to prevent overfishing in U.S. waters. Pollock stocks seem to be steady. Cod are declining. Flatfish are very plentiful. Sablefish are holding their own. Halibut are declining slowly, though there is a halibut baby boomlet going on in the nursery of the Bering Sea.

But Steller sea lions, which prey on pollock and other young groundfish, have all but disappeared. Down 79 percent in the Bering Sea and 73 percent in the western Gulf of Alaska, Steller sea lions in 1990 were declared a threatened species. Though commercial fishing activities are not suspected as a cause, the industry will be held partly responsible for protecting the Stellers that remain in Alaska and for keeping disruptive fishing activities well away from important sea lion habitat.

Conservation worries also concentrate in the international waters of the Bering Sea, commonly called the Donut Hole. This is an area outside the 200-mile limits of the United States and the Soviet Union, where Japanese, Korean, Russian, Polish and U.S. vessels still scoop up thousands of tons - some figures say 2 million metric tons - of pollock without benefit of regulations.

Fishery managers on both sides of the North Pacific struggle to manage their own domestic fisheries conservatively, while out in the Donut Hole, nobody knows exactly how many fish are being taken or what effect those harvests have on future stocks.

Delegates from the seafood industries of the United States and the Soviet Union will meet this summer to hash out alternative Donut Hole management possibilities. In the meantime, the web of life in the North Pacific, and human impact on it, remain mostly a mystery.

"Basically, all the North Pacific fisheries are one giant uncontrolled experiment,' says Hal Weeks, formerly a biologist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. We have so little real knowledge about what's going on out there. The industry wants to be given free rein unless we can prove that some activity is detrimental on a biological level. But that's almost impossible to do. So we engage in an act of faith."
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Title Annotation:groundfish fisheries
Author:Holmes, Krys
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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