Alaska's fishing businesses are in a world of hurt these days, reeling from the effects of everything from fish farms to climate change, but how to resolve the myriad problems facing fishers is a million-dollar question.
Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, has some radical proposals for the state-managed salmon, crab and other fisheries, which he pitched to a state convention of commercial fishers in Petersburg this week and may introduce to the Alaska Legislature in January.
And in Homer last week, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council board of directors met to discuss a broad range of ideas about revamping federal fisheries, some of which could dramatically strengthen or work to undermine coastal Alaska fishing towns.
All this talk comes under the umbrella term "rationalization," meaning efforts to increase efficiency in a notoriously inefficient industry.
"Rationalization is a huge word," said Alan Parks, a longtime fisher who is the conservation council's citizen outreach coordinator in Homer. "People really need to think about what that means."
The most familiar example of rationalization in Alaska was the institution of individual fishing quotas in the halibut and blackcod fisheries. Before 1995, anyone could fish for either species, which caused the fleet to get so large that federal managers reduced fishing time to two 24-hour periods a year.
With IFQs, the public harvest rights were awarded to individuals, allowing them to fish whenever they wanted. That improved safety and fish quality and spread the harvest over an eight-month period.
Other results were less savory for many in the fishing industry. Processing plants lost much of their markets for frozen fish, and many fishers who felt they deserved IFQs didn't get them. The number of boats has dwindled, reducing the number of crew jobs.
Now federal managers are considering IFQs for the big Bering Sea crab fisheries and possibly for bottomfish boats in the Gulf of Alaska. With the halibut and blackcod experience behind them, many in Alaska's fishing industry either want IFQs desperately or will fight them to death.
However, IFQs aren't the only option for rationalizing a fishery. Other options are to create fishing co-operatives in which boats, as well as processing plants, get individual quotas and can work together to wring the most money out of their harvest. That might include timing their fishing trips to coincide with the highest market demand or fishing more carefully to reduce the bycatch of unwanted species.
The Alaska Marine Conser-vation Council doesn't support or condemn any particular rationalization plan, but wants any plan to reflect its conservation ethic, Parks said.
"One of our guiding principles is that there is an intrinsic value to fishing in our coastal communities," he said, "and decision makers have the responsibility to take those intrinsic values into consideration when discussing rationalization plans."
Other principles include the need to reduce bycatch of unwanted species, to protect the habitat that is crucial for the long-term health of fish and other marine animals and to convert boats to less-destructive means of fishing, such as using pots rather than bottom trawling.
"Bycatch, habitat protection, gear conversion -- they all need to be talked about now and incorporated into rationalization plans," Parks said. "If not, you don't really address the issues" that are casting doubt on the viability of Alaska's fisheries.
The council has about 800 members in Alaska, many of whom are coastal fishers, Parks said. A discussion of ecosystem-based fishery management with National Marine Fisheries Service staff was held Thursday, and Saturday there was an open forum for council members to discuss topics of interest.
Some of the problems inherent in federal crab and groundfish fisheries are mirrored in state waters, but at least their markets are relatively strong. Salmon fishers, on the other hand, have seen their valuable markets undercut by salmon farms, and the combination of low prices and high expenses has made salmon fisheries less viable now than at any time since the mid-1970s.
All over Alaska, fishers are scrambling to find an edge in the increasingly global salmon market. In Kachemak Bay and elsewhere, fishers have formed cooperatives to ensure high quality and take advantage of niche markets. Scalzi thinks the Alaska Legislature could lend the industry a hand, and he has nearly a dozen bills ready for introduction that shore up the hard-pressed salmon industry.
Some of the bills may not find much support among fishers in certain areas of Alaska, he said, but that's OK.
"I'm just in favor of discussing it," he said. "I want people to look at these bills on a statewide basis," in hopes of finding solutions that could affect the entire industry.
Among his proposals are three that deal with boats and gear. One would eliminate the 58-foot length restriction on seine boats -- an idea sure to draw fire from those who have invested millions of dollars in their boats who don't want to suddenly be the smallest vessel in the fleet.
Another bill would allow drum seining, which is permitted in British Columbia but not in Alaska because it is faster and requires one less crew member. A third would allow fishers to fish in as many areas of the state every year as they had limited entry permits for -- they currently are limited to one.
Other bills deal with permits. Although Alaska law currently allows for buyback programs, it requires the purchase of every bit of gear, as well. Scalzi's bill would allow the buyback of just permits. Another would liberalize the restrictions on temporary permit transfers.
Perhaps the most radical of his ideas is one that would create quota shares in any state-managed fishery. That might not work for salmon, he said, but it could for crab and other species.
Many fishers and processors believe the Alaska Board of Fisheries is at least partially responsible for some of the gloom in the fishing industry. Its cutbacks in fishing time in upper Cook Inlet, for example, have been cited by Icicle Seafoods as a reason for not rebuilding its processing plant in Homer.
Scalzi has several bills that would rein in or redirect the board, which he said no longer represents commercial fishers. He said board members' total income from commercial fishing last year was just $1,000.
"I don't really call that much representation for a $1 billion industry, the largest employer in the state," he said. "I think there's a great inequity there."
One bill would require that three members of the board be current commercial permit holders with at least five years experience. Three members with sport or personal use fisheries backgrounds also would be selected, as would one member of the general public.
Another bill would change the timing of board meetings. Currently the board takes up an area such as Cook Inlet once every three years. Scalzi's bill would change that to five years -- roughly one full life cycle for sockeye and king salmon.
He also would prohibit board members from addressing an area out of cycle unless department biologists agree that a conservation concern must be addressed. Currently, the board can declare a conservation concern without biologists' concurrence.
His proposals could be shot down by fishers, the Legislature or the governor, Scalzi said, but that's not the point of bringing up these issues. He's trying to get people to "think outside the box."
"The industry has to take a good look at the next 20 to 30 years," he said. "What we are going to need to be viable again? What are we going to do to keep canneries in remote areas? A love-hate relationship exists between canneries and fishermen, but we need each other. We have to make the business climate acceptable to processors as well as to fishermen."
Joel Gay is the managing editor of the Homer News.
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