Story last updated at 4:28 p.m. Thursday, June 20, 2002

Crabbing plan spurs reaction from fishermen
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Reaction around the commercial fishing industry reverberated from coast to coast last week in the wake of a controversial proposal from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to restructure the Bering Sea crab fishery.

The North Pacific council, the group of government and industry representatives that governs fishing activities in Alaska waters, voted 11-0 to adopt the plan during a week of meetings in Dutch Harbor. The plan, which would implement a system of quota shares divided among crabbers, processors and Western Alaska communities, will now go to Congress for final approval. Pending Commerce Department approval, the rationalization plan might take effect by 2004 at the earliest.

The first aspect of the proposal, individual fishing quotas for the fishermen, is not controversial. Each boat of the 250-strong crab fleet will get a share of the fishery, metered out in IFQs to be determined by each boat's catch history.

In addition to making the world's most hazardous fishery safer by eliminating the race through timed openings, IFQs will likely lead to some consolidation within the fleet as shares are bought and sold on the open market.

"The safety is the good side of it," Homer crab fisherman Charlie Rehder said.

"It'd be nice not to have go out when there's a 9 millibar low," Rehder said, referring to low barometric pressure that often accompanies stormy weather in the notoriously rough Bering Sea.

Rehder operates one of the roughly half-dozen crab boats from Homer that still make the run to the Bering Sea each winter.

The idea of guaranteeing 90 percent of the catch to a set group of processors, on the other hand, has created quite a stir, with crabbers complaining that individual processor quotas will hamper their ability to secure fair prices.

Alaska has long been known as a progressive manager of its fisheries and reforms here often lead to debate in other commercial fishing centers.

An editorial from the Boston Herald feared the council was setting the precedent for creating a "processor cartel," a term that was quickly picked up by the media and the fishermen's lobby.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, a nonprofit representing small Alaska fishermen, fears that the creation of processor quotas could return Alaska's fisheries to the "feudal system" that existed before statehood, when canneries wielded enormous power to set prices and charge exorbitant prices for the goods and services they offered.

Rehder and other local crabbers are uncertain processor quotas will improve business of fishing for Bering Sea shellfish.

"Maybe it'll work," he said. "But (negotiating prices) is the scary thing for sure. But, I've sold every crab I've ever caught to Icicle (Seafoods) anyway, so maybe it's not that big a deal."

The processors fought hard for quotas, and ultimately the state of Alaska, represented by Kevin Duffy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, came out in favor of processor quotas. Arguing that they have invested heavily in the superstructure of the fishery, processors said catch guarantees were necessary to prevent fishermen from freezing out certain processors.

Chris Wythe, another long-time crab boat captain from Homer, can't see the upside of processor quotas.

"I'm not in agreement with that (part of the plan)," Wythe said. "I think it puts the fishermen in a poor bargaining position."

Wythe said that if the Bering Sea crab processors get 90 percent of the catch, it would be less economically viable for him to bring some crab back to the Peninsula for processing. That is an option he would like to have.

"I don't know if this will go through. It's a long way from being set in stone," he added. "If processor shares go through I think its going to change fisheries in the entire country."

With fishing interests on both coasts closely eyeing the crab rationalization proposal, particularly the creation of processor quota shares, there may be considerable wrangling when Congress picks up the issue.

Beth Stewart, the Juneau-based natural resources director for Aleutian East Borough, guessed it would likely be several months before the proposal would see the light of day in Washington, D.C.

And when it does, she expects there to be some wrangling over the controversial nature of processor shares.

"These are contentious issues," Stewart said. "This isn't going to happen overnight."

That is even more true regarding efforts to deal with the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery, which is also up for an overhaul, said Davis, who is a member of the Gulf Rationalization Committee. That committee presented the North Pacific council with minutes from its most recent meeting, though there was little if any discussion in Dutch Harbor last week of the Gulf rationalization issues.

It will likely be some time before a concrete plan gets unveiled, she said.

"I think a lot of people have an idea of what form they want it to take," Davis said. "And a lot more people have ideas on what form they don't want it to take."

No matter what the fishery, rationalization doesn't change the bottom line: fishermen want to make a living at sea, and fish processors want to turn a profit from their product.

"I've been saying good bye to my wife and kids every year since 1987 and spending untold hours in the cold and wet of the (Bering Sea) chasing these fish," Rehder said. "I'd like to be compensated for it some how. And if this is how it's going to happen, then that's OK with me."