ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles is urging Sen. Ted Stevens to block an effort by Bering Sea crab fishermen and processors to divide the fishery into lucrative private shares.
The problem with the plan is that some Alaska coastal communities and fishermen might be excluded, Knowles said in a letter Thursday to Stevens, R-Alaska.
Representatives for the crab fleet, based predominantly in Washington state and Oregon, are working furiously in Washington, D.C., to lobby Stevens and other lawmakers to pass a plan that would carve up the Alaska crab fisheries into individual shares for boats, similar to what was done with Alaska halibut and black cod in the mid-1990s.
Under the plan, crab processors also would receive guaranteed shares of the catch. The industry also is seeking $100 million in federal funds to buy out perhaps a quarter of the fleet of some 260 boats, which is considered far too large for the available crab.
Many crabbers think buying out the boats and installing a system of individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, is the only way to stave off wholesale bankruptcies in an industry reeling from declining crab stocks.
But Knowles, conservationists and some Kodiak-based crab fishermen, are wary that some in the industry are trying to privatize Alaska's public crab resources to their own advantage.
Such shares are expected to be worth millions of dollars despite the current depressed state of Bering Sea crab stocks, which tend to rise and fall.
Some Alaska communities heavily reliant on taxes from crab processing, including St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea's Pribilof chain, are scrambling to scuttle any privatization plan. They object that only fishermen and processors -- not communities -- would get guaranteed shares. Any plan should at least mandate that a certain amount of crab must continue to be landed at traditional processing ports like St. Paul, they say.
Knowles urged Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and author of some of the nation's main fishery management laws, to put off dividing the crab fishery or any other fisheries for at least one year.
That would allow time for federal fishery managers to analyze the state of the crab industry and ''would give all sectors of the fishing industry and coastal fishing communities a chance to participate in an open public process, which Congress can then act on with confidence.''
Five years ago, Congress banned fishery managers from implementing any more IFQ programs, but that ban is to expire Sept. 30. Congress is expected to extend it, but some Alaska crabbers, as well as fishermen in other parts of the country, are hoping Stevens will endorse an exemption for at least the crab or other fisheries plagued by too many boats chasing too few fish.
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