The era of open access commercial fisheries is ending. Our crab and groundfish fisheries are overcapitalized and fishermen are racing to catch as much fish as possible before the total allowable catch is taken and everyone ties up at the dock. There are too many boats with expanded efficiency and technology chasing too few fish.
But what will take the place of open access fisheries?
Will it be a system that benefits independent fishing families and enriches coastal communities by maintaining deep ties to the sea around us? Will it reward good stewardship that is less wasteful and lighter on marine habitats? Will it provide for the next generation of fishermen and vibrant local economies?
Or will the seafood business trend toward greater consolidation, where fewer companies own vessels and processing plants, and independent fishermen go the way of the family farmer? Unfortunately, this may very well be the outcome if Congress approves a bill that authorizes seafood processors to hold fishing quota.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is recommending to Congress that Bering Sea crab fisheries be managed under a quota system in which fishermen are allocated individual fishing quotas and seafood processors are awarded individual processor quotas to buy and process the catch. This proposed system requires fishermen to sell at least 90 percent of their catch only to processing companies holding processor quota.
Processor quota is government allocation of market share to certain corporations, a policy strictly forbidden by federal law in other industries. In fact, Congress would have to exempt seafood processors from federal anti-trust laws in order to allow corporations to be granted a piece of the market.
Processor quota will create cartels by limiting participation in the market to a select pool of companies. Processors would be able to freely buy, sell and lease quota, and the recommendation of the NPFMC would allow consolidation to proceed until there are only two processors remaining in operation.
Some of the largest multinational processing corporations doing business in the United States will reap the greatest windfall. In the highly prized red king crab fishery, 49 percent of the processor quota would immediately go to five foreign-owned companies. This program facilitates corporate consolidation and anti-competitive behavior.
Why would we want to use Alaska's public resources to help corporate giants gain even more political and economic control?
If Congress approves the Bering Sea crab plan, fishermen will be required to sell their catch to particular companies who own processor quota. The public will find fishery management and local government decisions increasingly dominated by a small number of corporations that have tremendous influence and little regard for the public interest.
Awarding processor quota has nothing to do with conservation -- fisheries conservation takes place before the fish are processed. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council should be focused on making sure our fisheries are sustainable for the long term. Instituting a processor quota program will mean that fishery managers will be burdened with management of the downstream impacts of the seafood industry. Fishery managers will have less time and fewer resources to focus on conservation issues.
Safety-at-sea and conservation benefits of fishing quota programs are only realized through the program's design. None of the potential benefits of a fishing quota program are linked to a processor quota system. If processors need help, there are other established ways for Congress to respond -- like a one-time buy out of unnecessary processing technology, which does not involve the permanent guarantee of market share.
The Alaska Marine Conservation Council recognizes that processors have concerns that need to be addressed. We believe there are other ways to provide stability for the processing sector that do not threaten the competitive balance between fishermen and processors, do not facilitate incentives for vertical integration within the industry, and do not require exemption to federal anti-trust laws.
In the month ahead, Congress will be vigorously debating the future of federally managed fisheries. They could establish into law a program that will advance conservation and the viability of coastal communities, or Congress could turn away from independent fishermen and reward efficiency and corporate consolidation. Once this decision is made, there's no going back.
Alan Parks of Homer has been a commercial fisher since 1975. He currently splits his time fishing and working as the Alaska Marine Conservation Council's outreach coordinator. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council works to minimize bycatch, protect habitat, prevent overfishing and promote clean, sustainable fishing opportunities for coastal communities.
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