Alaska Fish Industry Mulls Pollock Plan

Federal allocation decision stirs debate over fish harvest; coastal, sea processors at odds in Aleutian Islands region

FEDERAL managers took a step toward slowing the explosive growth of one of the world's biggest and most lucrative fisheries after a recent decision to split pollock harvests in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands region between onshore and at-sea processors.The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted last month to phase in, over three years, a 45 percent allocation for vessels delivering to processing plants located onshore in coastal Alaska towns. If approved by US Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, the new rules would go into effect Jan. 1. The new plan also allocates all of the smaller Gulf of Alaska pollock catch and 90 percent of the Gulf's Pacific cod to the onshore segment. Factory trawlers - ships that catch fish and process them at sea - have come to dominate the fishery in recent years. Up to now, onshore processors - plants built on land, or on barges tied to docks, and supplied by traditional fishing vessels - have seen their share of the area's 1.4 million-metric-ton pollock catch dwindle to less than 20 percent.

Trawlers vow to continue battle The onshore allocation left Alaska officials crowing and the Seattle-based factory trawler advocates promising to carry the fight to Secretary Mosbacher's office. "I'm relatively confident that when the secretary of commerce goes through the record, it will not be approved," said Bert Larkins, executive director of the Seattle-based American Factory Trawler Association. If Mosbacher does approve the radical allocation, he said, "The next alternative is probably the courts." Onshore advocates complain that the mobile factory trawlers are wasteful and could move on to other waters after depleting Alaska stocks. Factory trawlers also escape local and state taxes because they operate more than three miles offshore. Factory trawler advocates counter by pointing to their segment's economic efficiency and the superior product freshness offered by ships that can process fish immediately after they are caught. The factory trawler industry has fingered Nippon Suisan and Taiyo Fisheries Ltd. as likely market colluders that, given the opportunity, will depress prices for pollock products - fillets and surimi, a protein paste. The giant Japanese corporations own four of the five major seafood plants in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, the Alaska port that is the center of the booming bottomfish industry. But critics of the 70-vessel factory trawler fleet point out that many of the ships were built overseas and have significant international ownership, largely Japanese and Norwegian. "I want a stable community that works year-round and I want a labor force that has a chance to stay in Alaska, " said council member Clem Tillion, a longtime critic of mobile factory trawlers' fishing practices. Mr. Tillion, Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel's special aide on fisheries, is among those accusing the highly mobile factory trawlers of wasting much of the fish that they catch in their bottom-dredging nets, often the size of football fields.

Industry on verge of shakeout But for most in the industry, the allocation issue is a matter of money, not ecology. The week-long session drew crowds of advocates defending their share of an industry that all sides agree is overcapitalized and on the brink of a shakeout. "If this alternative gets passed, a lot of people are going to be out of work," said Pete Richardson, captain of a factory trawler owned by Seattle-based Arctic Alaska Fisheries Inc., of the onshore allocation. "You're going to displace a lot of very productive, hard-working US citizens." "Seafood is 10 times as important to Kodiak and the Aleutians as Boeing is to King County and Seattle," countered Paul Fuhs, Alaska director of business development and former mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. The council also took steps in a special meeting Wednesday to curtail "dirty fishing the incidental catch of unintended species like salmon and halibut that are snared in the huge nets that trawl for bottomfish. The council endorsed plans to close areas when excessive bycatch occurs, step up vessel monitoring, decrease allowable halibut bycatch, and delay groundfish openings to diminish interception of chinook salmon.

Greenpeace files suit in Seattle If approved, the measures could go into effect as early as January. But they were only a handful of 26 proposals offered by the council's bycatch committee. Chairman Larry Cotter said the council's small staff, which must perform a legally mandated socioeconomic and biological review, limits its management options. "We probably catch 50 to 60 percent of all the fish harvested in the United States, and we have the smallest staff of any region. It's unconscionable," he said. Whether the council's actions will help preserve pollock supplies is still a subject of debate. While allocation arguments raged in Anchorage, Greenpeace USA filed suit in federal court in Seattle to block the National Marine Fisheries Service's expansion of the Gulf of Alaska pollock quota from 73,400 metric tons to 103,400 metric tons. Greenpeace alleged the quota increase would exacerbate overfishing, which it names as the cause of the threatened Steller sea lions' sharp population decline.

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