Alaska Senator Uses Riders to Recast Fishery Policy

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, October 6, 2003 (ENS) - Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens is keen to set up a system of processor quotas for some Alaskan crab fisheries, despite opposition from the U.S. Department of Justice, local fishermen and conservationists. The plan would force crab Bering Sea crab fishermen to sell 90 percent of their catch to specified processors, who would be allocated a set share of the total allowable catch.

Supporters, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, say the plan would provide the processing industry with needed financial guarantees and stability.

The quota plan "recognizes and preserves the roles of Alaska fishermen and Alaska fishing communities," said Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Alaska Senator tacked a rider enacting the plan onto the fiscal year 2004 spending bill for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State.

Critics say the only party helped by the proposal is the processing industry. They say the plan would give the industry unfair leverage and control over the market - to the detriment of fishermen. Stevens

Senator Ted Stevens is seeking changes to the management of Alaska's fisheries by adding riders to an appropriations bill. (Photo Office of the Senator)
The proposal will "turn fishermen into share croppers," says Alan Parks, a commercial fisherman and outreach coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

"This has nothing to do with fish and everything to do with market control," Parks told ENS.

The controversial plan is an attempt to solve an increasingly difficult problem - the "race to fish" nature of the current Alaska crab harvest. Stock declines have forced fishery managers to set total allowable catches of crabs in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island fisheries.

There are currently no individual quotas for individual fishermen. When the fisheries are open - usually only for a few days at a time - there is a free for all that encourages the fishers to get as many crabs as possible. They are free to sell their crabs to whichever processor offers the best price.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council's proposal would instill individual catch quotas to licensed crab fishers, a policy that that many believe could reduce the "race to fish." and help sustain Alaska crab fishing.

Parks says his organization and many fishermen support the council's plan - except for the processor quotas. The reason Stevens is trying to ram it through Congress, Parks said, is because processor quotas are "illegal."

The Department of Justice appears to agree. It studied the North Pacific Fishery Management Council plan and in an August letter determined the processor quotas would "likely will reduce competition among processors, which could discourage efficient investments, limit new product development, and undercut competition in selling processed crab products."

Justice Department officials recommended that processor quotas be removed from the plan.

The council has refused to release its analysis of the effects of the crab rationalization plan, Parks said.

But available details show that the plan would allow only 24 processors to be eligible for the Bering Sea crab catch - some 80 companies processed crab between 1991 to 2000. And some 90 percent of the quota would go to 12 corporations, five of which are controlled by foreign owned companies. crab

There are too many boats chasing too few crabs in Alaska waters. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game )

This does not sit well with many Alaska fishermen.

"You need to assure that the people harvesting American natural resources have a vested interest in sustaining them," Parks said. "This plan does not do that."

There are signs that some in Congress are wary of Steven's rider.

Last month, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Olympia Snow of Maine sent Stevens a letter asking him to remove the provision.

The processor quota plan would "significantly change U.S. fisheries policies," the senators wrote.

"Considering the magnitude of this change and the many grave concerns with the economic justification for this plan, we respectfully suggest that the Commerce Committee should continue its oversight of this matter."

The full Senate has yet to consider the bill, which contains three other Stevens riders that could affect fishery management.

Language added on the end of the spending bill would prohibit the National Marine Fisheries Service from spending money to identify and protect essential fish habitat in the North Pacific.

In the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, Congress designed these national habitat provisions to ensure that fishing does not harm the long term integrity of habitat vital to sustainable fisheries.

Stevens' third rider would set up a pilot program to study rockfish - a program that has been twice been rejected by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

"This is Congress micromanaging rockfish populations," said Jo Knight, spokesperson for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Critics say Stevens' support for the project is evidence of the Alaska senator's willingness to pick and choose which council decisions to support, while consistently pledging his support for the council.

"Stevens has been a proponent of the council and saying they are doing a wonderful job - now that he does not agree with them, he starts going through back door," Knight said. snowcrab

Many find snow crabs a tasty treat, but conservationists say current fishery management is not sustainable. (Photo courtesy government of Newfoundland )
The fourth rider allocates a portion of the Aleutian Islands pollock fishery to the Aleut Corporation, which is one of thirteen regional native corporations that was established in 1972 under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The fishery has been closed since 1998 to due species depletion. Federal fish managers and conservationists believe the fishery has not yet recovered - part of the decision close it was to provide prey species for endangered Steller sea lions.

Stevens said the provision does not order the reopening of the fishery, but critics are far from convinced.

And Knight notes the Alaska Senator's son - Ben Stevens, who is an Alaska state representative, is on the board of the company that is receiving the allocation.

"It looks fishy," she told ENS.