ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A $100 million buyout of Bering Sea crab boats could be in jeopardy unless the fractious crab industry can reach agreement on how to divide the harvest, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said.
Stevens, R-Alaska, last year won authorization for a buyout of some boats, with the government paying $50 million and the remaining crab fishermen financing the rest. But no money has been released, and further action by Congress is necessary for that to happen.
Supporters say a buyout would allow perhaps a third of the nearly 300 crab boats to bow out of the fishery, allowing the remaining vessels to catch more crab and make more money at the dock.
That's critically important, say crab fishermen, because of the sorry state of crab stocks in the Bering Sea. The mainstay snow crab catch is only about 15 percent of what it was in 1999, when it was one of Alaska's most lucrative fisheries with some 194 million pounds of crab caught worth about $190 million.
Stevens said he thinks crab fishermen and packers need to find agreement this year on measures to stabilize the fishery. Otherwise, they court business failures and not accomplishing the buyout, he said.
Most industry players believe the ultimate solution for a smaller crab fleet is assigning individual catch shares to boats. This would end the current expensive and dangerous race for crab, bringing more stability. The buyout is seen as a prelude to individual quotas.
But internal squabbling is hurting chances not only for the buyout but for individual quotas. Such buyouts have been attacked as an improper use of taxpayer dollars by organizations like Citizens Against Government Waste. Individual quotas also are controversial and would require congressional approval.
The central issue is whether crab processors, as well as fishing boats, would receive guaranteed shares of crab. The processors say they have made investments in their packing plants just as fishermen have invested in boats, and they need some guarantee that a share of crab will continue to flow into their plants.
In another twist, important crab ports like St. Paul are demanding that a certain share of crab be delivered to packing plants in their towns.
Some crabbers are deeply wary of the packers, saying that giving them a hold on crab deliveries might also give them the power to short fishermen on prices.
Stevens, who helped author some of the nation's most important fishing laws, said the division within the crab industry could hurt chances of a buyout. He noted that packers themselves own some of the crab boats, and that they would play an important role in financing the industry's half of the $100 million buyout.
Stevens said some packers have told him that if they can achieve some of their goals on stabilizing the industry, they can support reducing the size of the fleet.
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