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Alaska fishing: the merits and costs of a tamed frontier

The Bering Sea is no longer ‘wild and free.’ Who’s left out?

(Page 2 of 3)

“It’s just a way of people getting hold of the resource. It’s all about greed,” says Rhonda Maker, a Kodiak store owner who says she was pushed out of fishing because she was too small a player to win significant quota shares. Now her new career as a retailer is being undermined, she says, by fewer cash-flush fishermen coming to her two stores here.

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The latest controversy involves a new crab system imposed on the Bering Sea in 2005. It shrank the harvest fleet from some 250 boats to about 85 and eliminated some 800 to 900 jobs. While the complicated system gave quota shares to boat owners, skippers, and processors, it left out crewmen. It had a strong effect here, where many locals would sail off to the Bering Sea crab grounds for an important part of their yearly income.

In Kodiak, that first full year of crab rationalization cut the number of local boats participating in the fishery in half and the community lost $1 million to $1.6 million in revenue, according to a study by University of Alaska Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp.

Particularly galling to some here is the idea of fishing for somebody else, toiling on the cold sea while the quota owner takes a cut of the profits while ashore.

“It’s the American way, but it’s just not fair. It’s fishing. It’s not a typical business,” says Kavik Anderson, preparing his boat. He shouts over the noise of a pressure washer cleaning off a nearby boat at the dock. “The processors got stuff. The owners got stuff, and the crew mem­­bers didn’t get anything. It’s just not fair.”

Fisherman Stosh An­derson, Kavik’s father and a former North Pacific council member, dislikes some of the social outcomes of the new management systems. “If you weren’t born with a silver fishhook in your mouth or your family’s not in the industry, it’s going to be very tough for you to get into the industry,” he says, as he and his crew prepared his newly rebuilt boat for salmon.

What to many in Kodiak is disenfranchisement is to economists a reasonable and inevitable evolution that brings order to the resource-imperiling and unsafe chaos in the ocean “commons.”

“In general, with the right set of rules and the right design – which is always a big ‘if’ – going to a rights-based fishery is going to improve the value of the fishery,” says Jim Murphy, an economist and visiting professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Of the four rationalization goals – conservation, enhanced value, reduced costs, and social fairness – the Alaska schemes, overall, “have done well in all but one,” Professor Knapp says. The designation of winners and losers makes fairness elusive, he says. “If there was ever a situation where the devil was in the details, this would be it,” he says.

For some in Kodiak, the changes have been good, even for crab.

“I think the council’s done a good job with the crew,” said Jeff Steele, a local fishing captain, in testimony to the council’s advisory panel. “I think they should be up here thanking you for better jobs, and better pay, and safer conditions....”

Before the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 established the 200-mile US exclusive economic zone off the nation’s shores, Alaska’s remote high seas were wild and free – and fished by whoever could get to them. By the 1990s, quota systems were being drawn up for pollock, halibut, and other species.

Around Alaska, the halibut system that went into effect in 1996 gets general high marks. By that time, there were so many fishermen targeting halibut in the open-access system that the seasons were reduced to two 24-hour fishing “derbies” a year, events that become notorious for shoving vast amounts of low-quality fish onto the market all at once, and for the sometimes life-threatening risks that fishermen took to get their catches.

Now halibut harvests are spread out over several months, putting more valuable fresh fish on the market instead of having almost all of it sold frozen. With quota holders knowing how much fish they can land, fishermen can take their time and work carefully and safely.