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Stevens' buyout plan may help Alaska crabbers

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska crab fishermen are hoping a $100 million boat buyback program steered through Congress by Sen. Ted Stevens last week might save them from mass bankruptcy because of crashing crab stocks in the Bering Sea.

The objective would have a quarter of the fleet of about 260 boats taking the buyout, leaving more snow, king and other crab species for the remaining vessels.

Stevens chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Alaska Republican included the plan as part of a legislative package he demanded as the lame-duck Congress wrapped up its final budgeting last week.

Stevens at one point even threatened to shut down government to get his priorities.

Buying back boats has proved an imperfect tool for dealing with troubled fisheries in other parts of the country. It would build on recent efforts in Alaska to limit and even reduce fleets that are too large and too powerful for the available catch.

The bill sets up a ''reverse auction,'' where each crabber can submit a bid for what he would accept to permanently remove his boat from Bering Sea crab fishing.

Taxpayers would foot half the cost, with the remaining crab fleet paying the other $50 million.

The measure calls for the plan to be implemented no later than May 1. It could take effect only if a supermajority of the crabbing fleet voted to back the buyout plan.

''I think quite a few boats will pursue it,'' said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, a trade group. The buyout, he said, might appeal especially to fishermen struggling financially or who think prospects for profitable crab fishing are poor.

Thomson told the Anchorage Daily News that Congress passed some other legislation that might be even more important for the industry. That includes a measure directing federal fishery regulators to begin work on a program granting each crab boat an individual catch quota.

Such quotas would end the free-for-all crab fishing that helped create a fleet that now is far too large for the job, Thomson said.

Crabbers in January will fish for snow crab, which for years had been the most valuable crab harvest in Alaska -- worth more than $190 million at the dock in 1999.

A sudden collapse in the crab population forced an 85 percent catch reduction for this year, and about the same quota was set for January.

Other commercially important crab species like Bristol Bay red king crab and bairdi Tanner crab either are at low levels or have been placed off-limits to the fleet, making its prospects extremely bleak.

Federal programs to buy boats out of troubled fisheries or reduce overbuilt fleets have a mixed record.

A June report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that a $24.4 million New England program failed to keep buyback recipients from re-entering fisheries, with some even using the buyback money to purchase boats.

The Stevens-sponsored buyback plan aims to avert that problem by requiring buyback participants either to scrap their boats or never use them in any other fishery.

David Williams of the government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste said Monday the Bering Sea crab buyback is just another example of pork-barrel spending.

John Iani, vice president of UniSea Inc., a major Bering Sea crab-packing company, defended the buyback.

Crabbers are no different from weather-ravaged farmers, he said. Bering Sea crabbing is a notoriously deadly food-producing industry that needs help, Iani said.

''There was a time when government encouraged building these boats,'' he said. ''How much does the government pay for farm subsidies every single year?''



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