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Fish pie

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Federal fishery hearing draws a crowd in Kenai/Craig Medred photo

 

SOLDOTNA, AK – Representatives of the haves and have-nots of American ocean fisheries gathered in a packed college classroom here on Wednesday to offer Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, their ideas on what he could do with the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.

The now 40-year-old federal fisheries legislation is the legacy of the late and revered Alaska Sen.Ted Stevens.

Cherish it, and invest more in it, said the generally happy haves. In Alaska, the act pushed foreign trawlers, primarily Japanese, out of a newly created 200-mile, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off Alaska’s coast and spawned the sophisticated fisheries management needed to the farm the sea. Since then, Alaska pollock alone has become a $1 billion fishery, according to author Kevin Bailey.

Fix it, said a spokesman for small-boat fishermen in remote Alaska villages, and representatives of recreational fisheries, which were left out of the act.

The differing views might have been explained perfectly by Julie Bonney, the executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak,  who offered a simple pie analogy.

In answer to a question from Sullivan – the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard – she lumped the common-property fishes of the sea in a big pie of which everyone one wants a piece. She then added her view as to how well the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council had sliced up the pie and given every interest group its share.

And that’s where things got interesting.

Everyone wants a piece

The pie analogy is fine as far as it goes, said Duncan Fields, a former member of the Council “family” turned full-on populist advocate for the last of Alaska’s small boat fishermen. 

“(But) they’re not all even pieces,” he said.

As a former NPFMC member, he was quick to back track a bit with the notation that “there are many positive effects” to the way the federal government has managed fisheries off the coast of Alaska, but he said the “downstream” consequences of federal management through so-called “catch shares” have been large.

He pointed to a sociological study done in the Kodiak archipelago village of Ouzinike. Ouzinkie is a community of about 200 tucked into a bite on Spruce Island only about 12 miles north of Kodiak, but unconnected to the Kodiak Island road system.

The name, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce, is a variation on the Russian “Uzeniky,” which meant “village of Russians and Creoles.” The community dates its commercial fishing history back to 1889 when a cannery was built on the island. A second cannery followed shortly.

“In 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake and resulting tsunami destroyed the Ouzinkie Packing Company cannery,” the state website notes. “(But) following the disaster, Columbia Ward bought the remains and rebuilt the store and dock…(and) in the late 1960s, the Ouzinkie Seafoods cannery was constructed. The operation was sold to Glacier Bay and burned down in 1976 shortly after the sale. No canneries have operated since.”

The community’s rich fishing history is now largely gone. When a sociologist polled Ouzinkie students on what they want to be when they grow up, Fields said, only one wanted to be a commercial fisherman.

“In one generation, we’ve lost fishing in that community,” he said, and in his view, it wasn’t all by choice.

“They’ve been excluded in large part,” Fields said. The high costs of buying into catch shares for federal offshore fisheries present the same problem as the high cost of buying Alaska limited entry permits to catch salmon.

Fields’ observation led Sullivan to ask why it is about two-thirds of the limited entry salmon permits for Bristol Bay – one of the state’s most valuable fisheries – are now in the hands of non-Alaskans.

Fields was quick to point out that the migration of that wealth south to the Lower 48 is a state problem, not a federal problem. But, he added the state and federal systems share some similarities: most notably the high cost of entry.

‘Undoubtedly, rising entry costs are one of the most formidable effects of limited access programs such as the federal catch share programs and the state limited entry permit system,” researchers Rachel Donkersloot and Courtney Carothers reported last year in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.

But they also noted a lot of compounding problems: low fish prices for salmon likely to remain low as the world continues a shift to eating farmed salmon, low stocks of halibut which have driven already expensive catch-shares to even higher levels, lack of fishing experience, and changing lifestyles in an electronically connected world.

“For example, only 26 percent of students in the Kodiak Archipelago and 22 percent of students in Bristol Bay agree that the future looks good for young people who stay in their home communities,” the researchers wrote. “Understanding youths’ desires for remaining in or leaving their communities is important because a growing number of permits are leaving rural Alaska through the migration of people rather than the sale of permits.”

Locked door

Some tried to get around these problems by getting into the tourism business, which once had minimal entry costs compared to commercial fishing. But the NPFMC, unhappy about the growth of halibut catches by rod-and-reel fishermen, slammed the door on that in 2011 by imposing a limited entry plan on halibut charters and later a so-called “catch sharing plan” that reduced the amount of halibut charter anglers were allowed to catch.

Some Alaska entrepreneurs have tried to branch out into new fisheries. Miller’s Landing in Seward, for instance, offers a silver salmon and black sea bass charter. But those in the charter business in Alaska say that, in general, alternatives to halibut, which are available to anglers all summer, or salmon, which are highly seasonal, do not sell well.

And there are no guarantees that the NPFMC won’t move quickly to clamp down on sea bass, rockfish, cod, sablefish or any other rod-and-real fishery that appears to be competing with existing commercial fisheries because the Magnuson Stevens Act provides no provision for dealing with recreational fisheries.

Lacking that, the NPFMC’s philosophy has been to shoehorn recreational fisheries into a “commercial fishing box” – even though charters are really little more than taxis to the fishing grounds – and then severely regulate them as commercial fishing businesses.

The problem is small in Alaska (unless you’re a commercial halibut skipper put out of business by the federal limited entry plan), but only because Alaska ocean sport fisheries are generally small.

The problems are significantly bigger along the coasts of the Lower 48, where sport fisheries are much, much bigger and the fish considerably fewer.

“Today I’d like to focus on the economic impact of the recreational saltwater fishing, underscoring the need to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” Ben Speciale, the president of the Yamaha Marine Group, told Sullivan. The company, which produces outboards and boats, wants the MSA amended to specifically take into consideration the needs and desires of recreational fisheries.

Yamaha recognizes angling is a big business with growth potential. Anglers directly spent more than $28 billion on saltwater angling in 2105, according to Speciale.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported “$63 billion in sales impacts, up 5 percent from 2014.”  Those sales were credited with a $36 billion contribution to the gross domestic product and the support of 439,000 jobs.

Yamaha has a vested interest in this fishery. Though the company sells outboard engines and boats to commercial, charter and recreational anglers, the pool of potential buyers in the latter group far surpasses the combined volume of potential buyers in the former groups.

As a company, Speciale said, “”we want a lot of fish in the ocean.” A lot of fishermen in boats preferably powered by Yamaha engines in pursuit of those fish went without saying. But Speciale was quick to point out those fishermen aren’t just a benefit to one company’s business, they are a benefit to the national economy both along the coast and inland.

““Yamaha owns and operates a foundry in Indianapolis, Ind., which produces more than 60,000 stainless steel propellers each year that are used on Yamaha and other outboard motors,” he said. “More than a third of those props are used in saltwater boat applications despite the fact that they are manufactured in a landlocked state.

“We employ 130 hardworking Americans in Indianapolis. However, the economic impact of our propeller plant doesn’t end in Indianapolis. If you take a look at the raw materials that go into making those propellers, you will find that they come from all over the country.

“The waxes used in the investment casting process are shipped to Indianapolis from factories in Muskegon, Mich. or Cleveland, Ohio. Stainless steel is shipped to Indianapolis as ingots from Oil City, Pa. and from Muskegon, Mich.

“The various minerals used in the alloys are mined in a number of places, including Climax, Co., a state not known for saltwater fishing. Nickel used in the alloy likely comes from the Eagle Mine on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Furthermore, once the propellers have left our Indianapolis plant, they go on to support small businesses in all fifty states through our boat builder and dealer networks.”

Recreational anglers beached

And there is no doubt the MSA has problems when it comes to dealing with recreational fishing. Anglers, charter-boat operators, commercial fishermen and environmental groups are at the moment all in a Gulf of Mexico scrum fighting over red snapper. It is in many ways a tussle that almost makes the long-running fish war in Cook Inlet look tame.

NOAA earlier this year set a year-round red snapper season for a handful of commercial fishermen holding catch shares; a 44-day seasons for red-snapper, charter-boat operators, and a 10 day season (three-days in Georgia) for private anglers.

“The disparity has recreational anglers fuming,” reported The OnlineFisherman.com. “They say the federal government is encroaching in an area it doesn’t belong and wrongly favoring an industry over ordinary people.”

Alabama responded to the federal action by opening state waters for all of July. Along the Gulf of Mexico, unlike in Alaska, the states have control of fishing out to nine miles, and they have shown a willingness to push federal regulators. The offshore limit in Alaska is three miles, and the states says the Halibut Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, the act which created the International Pacific Halibut Commission, prohibits Alaska from independently regulating halibut as does a provision of the MSA that requires states conform or risk losing management of all fish in state coastal waters.

Under pressure from Gulf of Mexico states and Gulf Coast lawmakers, however, the Trump Administration in June extended the red snapper season by 39 days, primarily by letting anglers fish on weekends.

“The federal government said the economic benefit from allowing weekend fishing this summer by recreational anglers in federal waters outweighs the harm to the red snapper species, which is still recovering from disastrous overfishing,”  reported WKRG in Mobile, Ala.

“Gulf state officials had lobbied for and praised the change, but the lawsuit says the decision violated several laws by ignoring scientific assessments, promoting overfishing, and failing to follow required procedures. It was filed Monday for the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund.”

“Spud” Woodward from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources told Sullivan the MSA as it now stands simply doesn’t provide nearly enough flexibility to allow for management that is both economically and environmentally sensible.

Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former member of the NPFMC, however, thought the law was working nicely and gave federal officials high marks for their cooperation.

Woodward had a distinctly different view.

“Rather than set prescriptive goals, the MSA should allow the decision makers to use their best judgment to determine how best to eliminate overfishing and rebuild stocks without eliminating all opportunities for access to the fish,” he said. “When created by the original MSA, the regional councils were designed for that very purpose. However, under the current version of MSA they cannot fulfill that purpose.”

Liz Ogilvie, the chief marketing officer for the American Sportfishing Association, argued that giving the state more influence on economic aspects of management only makes good business sense.

There are both environmental and economic aspects to fisheries management. A fishery can be managed perfectly fine from a biological standpoint but provide little valuable to the people living in the community or state where fishery is taking place. The MSA sets “maximum sustained yield” as the basis for fisheries management on a biological level, but sets no standard for economic yield.

When Alaska charter boat operators tried to get NOAA to consider the economic costs to Alaska of restricting their fishery with limited entry and a shrunken halibut quota, NOAA said that was just too hard to do and ignored the request. The attitude was representative of NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to Ogilvie.

She told Sullivan that while sport fishing groups generally view state fishery agencies as partners in both conservation and development of fishing opportunities, they’ve come to view NOAA and NMFS as adversaries, as entities that spend most of their time trying to choke of sport fishing opportunity.

She said that needs to change, arguing that “recreational fishing can no longer be an after thought,” because its economic value is too great.

 

“The industry sees tremendous growth opportunities in the saltwater fishing market,” she said. ‘”According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the average cost of a saltwater trip – $134.88 – is approximately twice that of a freshwater trip -$69.05.

“Substantial economic opportunities for our industry and associated industries exist with offshore recreational fishing, but we are confronted with a management system that for years has been limiting that opportunity.”

Costs of saltwater trips are substantially higher in Alaska and the economic opportunities even greater, but the NOAA, NMFS and NPFMC have largely ignored recreational and charter fisheries or reduced them to the benefit of commercial fisheries.

When the federal entities restricted the charter harvest of halibut, they said they were doing so to “share the burden of conservation.” Charter anglers were at that time catching about 20 percent of the total harvest of halibut. That harvest percentage was reduced to the range of 16 to 18 percent, but the effect was even bigger because the overall size of that pie Bonney talked about was also shrinking.

There was no discussion of what the change meant to the economy of Alaska as a whole or of how halibut are managed elsewhere. The state’s fishery economist offered no advice because the state doen’t have one. Other states do.

And other states manage halibut differently. In the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council sets aside about 36 percent of the halibut catch for sport fisheries in Washington and 30 percent in Oregon. 

But the PFMC isn’t controlled by commercial fishing interests as is the NPFMC.

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