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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 3 of 3)

Also lauded is a community-development quota system that allocates a small portion of the huge Bering Sea catches to once-impoverished native villages along Alaska’s west coast. Though relatively small, their quota shares can be powerful local economic engines. The villagers’ success shows that quotas, instead of making the rich richer, “can be a device to make the poor richer,” Knapp says.

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Some alternate allocation ideas have been floated in academic and political circles. One would make quota shares temporary and subject to expiration after a number of years. Another would establish quotas linked to specific geographic spots rather than a particular species, to encourage more holistic, multispecies management.

The North Pacific Fishery Council has always respected the advice of its Scientific and Statistical Committee, never exceeding the total catch limits recommended by that panel of wonky biologists and technicians. Bycatch is taken seriously, too, with punishment meted out when too many fish of nontargeted species are netted in the harvest. Vast areas have been put off limits to protect habitat for fish,

Endangered Species Act-listed mammals, and newly mapped coral gardens. (See related story: “Alaska’s coral gardens: Scientists race to save unexplored wonders.) The council is trying an ecosystem-based management approach for the Aleutian Islands to avoid dama­ging natural resources about which much is yet unknown

The council is also moving to formally block off Alaska’s Arctic waters to commercial fishing before a warming climate and vanishing sea ice draws fish stocks northward. Too little is known about the changing Chukchi and Beaufort seas to allow commercial fleets to rush in, officials say. “Here, we’ve kind of inverted the burden of proof,” says Denby Lloyd, commissioner of the Alaska Department ofFish and Game and a member of the North Pacific council.

Still, there are holes in the protections.

Last year’s high-seas pollock harvest netted as bycatch a record number of river-bound chinook salmon, raising alarms in small salmon-dependent villages. At the Kodiak meeting, the North Pacific council gave preliminary approval to a new rule that could shut down the nation’s biggest single-species harvest entirely if similarly high chinook bycatch numbers are approached next year.

There are constant disputes over the extent and location of protective zones. The bans on bottom trawling protect areas where there was no such seafloor-scraping fishing in the past, for example, but did nothing for previously damaged sites, says Dorothy Childers, program director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “There’s still a lot of coral habitat that has been exposed to bottom trawling, and there’s a lot of habitat that has been mowed under,” she says.

Some of the quota programs have had unintended environmental consequences, such as fishermen purposely targeting species that are supposed to be incidental bycatch. In the first year of the crab program, “high-grading” skyrocketed as large numbers of legal-sized crabs were thrown back because they failed to meet the precise specifications preferred by seafood processors with quotas linked to the boats’ quotas.

Anyone who expects the invisible hand of rationalization to automatically result in resource conservation should look elsewhere, says Ms. Childers. Clean fishing, whether under quotas or open-access, has to be specifically mandated, she says. “The improvement that can be made under a rationalized system is that you can fish more slowly – but you have to fish more slowly,” she says.