Alaska’s Rep. Don Young seems happy to be the stalking horse for the softened Magnuson Stevens Act, the law that governs our nation’s fisheries. But the revised version eviscerates the Alaska Model of fisheries management and does not reflect the majority view of Alaskan fishermen. More importantly for the nation, it seeks to uncouple the management of fish stocks from science and emphasizes economic gain in setting harvest levels. This new language would set the stage for an era of disastrous mismanagement, and ultimately, the private ownership of our nation’s wild fish resources.
Having fished commercially in Alaskan waters for over 30 years I have seen first-hand the efficacy of the Alaska Model, which emphasizes science based stock assessments and uses “hard caps” that shut down the entire fishery when the sustainable harvest level is reached. This recognizes the potential for overfishing to outstrip a species’ ability to reproduce.
There is little doubt that New England’s once-famous cod resource has been hammered to the breaking point by overfishing. Yet this proposed draft of the MSA would replace the word “overfished” with the more vague “depleted,” de-emphasize their Science and Statistical Committees, and allow fishery management councils to weigh decisions prioritizing the economic need and dependence. Together this will allow them to accelerate already-foolhardy practices in setting unsustainable catch limits.
Here in Alaska we have recognized the relationship between the health of the golden goose and the continued sustained harvest of its eggs, and the North Pacific Fisher Management Council is globally admired for its ability to manage accordingly. It is horseshoes and hand grenades science, admittedly. The ocean is a vast place, and its residents are capricious creatures.
Nevertheless the overall record of the NPFMC speaks for itself. The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska remain consistently vital and productive. The reasoning that councils should be free from the constraints of data-based stock assessments because they are sometimes wrong is like wearing a blindfold to shoot your machine gun because you’re nearsighted.
Even in Alaska we have had our crashes, in which populations of valuable species fall to unharvestable levels and do not recover. King and snow crab, once abundant in Kodiak waters, have remained at historically low numbers for decades, despite high harvest levels just prior to their crashes. Better science might have recognized a pattern of retrenchment, in which far-flung populations of crab had retreated to concentrated enclaves.
This pattern of localized pockets of abundance just prior to a crash has been borne out by research. If scientific stock assessments are discounted and catch levels set to maximize short-term gain, we will watch species wink out one by one as fishermen concentrate their efforts on getting their last, fat pieces of the dying geese.
Further, the federal fallback position for at-risk fisheries has been to implement a catch shares program, which makes adhering to a hard cap relatively easy. Alaska has been a pioneer here, too. When the Bering Sea king crab fishery was determined to be dangerously oversubscribed the NPFMC gave de facto ownership of the crab to selected corporations and individuals.
Today those Quota Share holders extract a fee from the working fishermen of 50-75 percent of the value of the deadliest catch. It is not well known that those brave crabbers on television are essentially sharecroppers.
As American fisheries become more distressed, they are likely to be considered for catch share programs. The new absentee owners of the resource will then be free to charge an extraction fee, pitting local working fishermen against each other in a bidding war for access. The result is less money in fishermen’s pockets and less taxes in their towns.
Capital flight from fishing towns has consistently followed the implementation of catch shares. Should the fishery be successfully rebuilt (although management councils might be relieved of their obligation to do this by replacing “overfished” with “depleted”), the quota share holders will permanently own the expanded fishery and its increased value, one harvested for them by their renters and managed for them by the federal government.
Ironically, the new language in MSA meant to aid fishing communities could very well hasten their demise.
Kodiak resident Terry Haines is a commercial fisherman and former member of the Kodiak City Council.