Bering sea crab quotas sparks controversy

Posted: Friday, June 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A recommendation this week by federal regulators to divide the Bering Sea commercial crab fisheries into privately held quotas has sparked controversy rippling all the way to the East Coast.

In particular, critics are upset that the plan not only would give fishermen individual shares of the catch but would also give a select group of processing companies exclusive rights to buy most of the catch.

Many fishermen hate the idea of restricting who can and can't buy their king and snow crab catches. They fear that limiting buyers would lower prices.

Monday's 11-0 vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Dutch Harbor resonated in other major commercial fishing regions like New England, where many fishing interests dislike any move to create private catch or buying privileges. Most worrisome, the critics say, are shares for seafood processors.

''We're just deadly afraid of this precedent,'' said Paul Parker, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.

The North Pacific council, composed mainly of government and industry representatives, governs fishing off Alaska's coast. Many of its decisions are cutting edge in the commercial fishing industry and could spawn lookalike reforms in other regions. Other regions watch the council closely and often imitate its decisions.

Before the crab plan can take effect, it must be approved by Congress. The plan also must undergo an environmental analysis and pass muster with the U.S. commerce secretary. That work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

As soon as the 2004 season, the Bering Sea crab fisheries could be transformed from a wild and often deadly race for shellfish, in which each boat and processing company tries to catch and pack as much crab as possible, to a genteel fishery in which each boat and processor works its own guaranteed, individual piece of the harvest.

Supporters say the plan has many benefits. One is safety: No longer racing, fishermen wouldn't need to brave winter weather to compete for crab. Dozens of fishermen have died crab fishing over the past decade.

Another benefit is industry consolidation. Particularly because crab abundance is at a low ebb, there are too many boats and packing plants to handle the harvest. Under the council plan, boat owners and processors would be able to sell their shares and get out of the business.

Crabbing remains a lucrative business and would become more so if crab populations swing back up. Over the past 10 years, the king and snow crab fisheries affected by the plan have paid fishermen an annual average of about $220 million at the docks.

Fewer than two dozen processing companies would receive rights to buy 90 percent of the crab harvest, with 10 percent available to other buyers.

The only other known U.S. fishery with limited buyers is the huge Bering Sea pollock fishery.

Processors insist they need guaranteed rights to buy crab to counterbalance the fishermen's individual catch rights. They worry that fishermen, relieved of racing, might shop around their catch to different ports, possibly starving some processing plants.

East Coast interests, along with some Alaska crabbers and advocacy groups like the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, have vowed to try to kill the plan in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., is asking his congressional colleagues to sign onto a letter advocating a ban on such processor rights.

Stosh Anderson, a council member and Kodiak commercial fisherman, said he, too, has problems with the crab plan. However, he said he voted for it because most of the crab industry has long wanted to get away from racing. He also said the plan includes a binding arbitration clause to protect fishermen in cases of price disputes.

Much work remains on the plan and Anderson said he's hopeful everyone's concerns will be addressed.

''We're going to be working on this for years to come,'' he said.

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