A new way forward in the Gulf of Alaska: Reduce bycatch, but protect coastal communities

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laska has some of the world’s most abundant and prosperous fisheries and a reputation for science-based management. Fisheries are the life-blood of coastal Alaska and a major driver of the state’s economy. So when it comes to managing our fisheries, it’s critical we get it right.

Today’s challenges in sustaining our fisheries and communities touch all Alaskans. We all share concerns about diminishing returns of chinook salmon and the declining trend in halibut. Salmon disaster declarations, significant reductions in the allowable halibut catch for commercial and recreational fishermen — these hit home in a big way. 

But while salmon and halibut fishermen are restricted to protect the resource, bycatch of the same species is allowed in trawl fisheries as a cost of business. To their credit, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is taking steps to address these bycatch concerns. 

One way the North Pacific Council has decided to do this is through a new management system for the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries called catch shares. The idea is to allocate fishing rights so that individual or groups of vessels have a set amount of the target fish and bycatch that they alone can catch, thus ending the “race for fish.”

In theory, this allows each fisherman to slow down the pace of their operation to avoid catching the wrong fish because they’re guaranteed a set amount of the target fish.   

Today it seems everyone from federal agencies to major banking institutions to some environmental groups is touting privatized access to our public resources as both an economic and ecological saving grace. 

But these claims ignore experience proving the dangerous effects that catch shares can have on fishing communities.

How do you design a plan that is equitable, achieves ecological goals and is good for coastal communities as a
whole?

Just allocating shares easily turns into a windfall for some followed by a fairly predictable concentration of wealth. For example, if catch shares are bought and sold, fishing privileges become consolidated into the hands of fewer owners with the most access to financial capital — and skipper and crew jobs are lost. 

If shares are allowed to take on the character of a perpetual property right, fishing practices can become institutionalized even if they should be modified for conservation or fairness.

High capital cost of entering the fishery becomes a barrier to the next generation. Flight of access to fisheries resources from coastal communities can lead to a cascade of social, cultural and economic hardships.

Alaska is not exempt from these problems. Seventy percent of crew jobs in the Bering Sea crab fisheries were eliminated when vessel owners sold or leased quota to each other following the privatization of
fisheries access rights.

The implementation of a catch share program in the Bering Sea red king crab fishery alone resulted in a 60 percent decline in the number of participating vessels. These effects remind us that fisheries policy is fundamentally social policy. 

As federal fishery managers work to address bycatch problems in Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, there are overarching principles that should be center stage.  Management goals must include lowering the amount of king salmon, halibut and crab that is allowed to be taken as bycatch. 

Observers are needed on board for accountability. Equally important are provisions to anchor shares in communities and provide for entry-level fishing opportunities.  

Developing a catch share program signifies a tectonic shift in the socio-political landscape of Gulf of Alaska fisheries and the communities dependent on them. It is critical that we get it right from the outset because it is extremely difficult to repair an ill-designed management regime after-the-fact. 

We have a tremendous yet challenging opportunity to set the standard for strengthening the linkage
between sustaining abundant resources and the economic vitality of our working fishermen and coastal communities.

More information is at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc.

Rachel Donkersloot grew up in Naknek and earned a doctoral degree in social anthropology from the University of British Columbia studying catch share programs internationally. She is the fisheries program director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

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