State regulators want to end open access to several Gulf of Alaska commercial fisheries, a system they say creates yearly fish derbies that shrinks seasons, hurts the quality of the catch and endangers fishermen.
Instead, regulators want to create a system that would divide harvest allocation shares among fishermen who have previously caught groundfish in state waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Changing from an open access to a so-called "dedicated access privilege" program would address concerns about fish stocks and the economies of communities where shorter fishing seasons mean shorter employment seasons, supporters say.
If it happens, it could be the biggest change in Alaska commercial fishing since the state constitution was amended to allow limited entry in the 1970s.
Many fishermen in Kodiak and Homer call the plan vague. They worry that the changes will give regulators too much power and say the proposal goes against the state's equal access laws.
Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission say Alaska fishermen would be secure, and that any change will be subject to close public scrutiny.
The consequences would be worse if the federal government goes through with a similar proposal outside the imaginary three-mile line in the Gulf of Alaska while the state keeps an open access system, they say.
A fisherman with a quota or entitlement in federal waters, which is at least three miles from shore, could also race into state waters for open season, also known as double dipping.
"You would have fisheries on the state side that would allow folks who got federal entitlements to double dip," said Bruce Twomley, chairman of the entry commission.
Creating a fisheries rationalization system would instead allocate harvest shares to individuals or associations. Both federal and state sides expect the programs to work together.
"We want a coordinated rationalization between the federal and state governments," said Sue Aspelund, special assistant to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
With the dedicated access privilege program, fishermen would be assured of their catch and could take their time to fish, Twomley said. In an open access system, fishermen catch as much as they can in direct competition with other fishermen, making safety a concern, he said.
"They can fish without making it a derby," Twomley said.
The change would only affect groundfish fisheries, such as Pacific cod, sablefish and rockfish.
A bill being considered by the Legislature would only give the Alaska Board of Fisheries and Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission the ability to design a dedicated access privilege program. By itself, the bill does not set up any rationalization programs for groundfish fisheries.
Different programs would be created for different fisheries, and any program proposed by regulators would have to go through a public comment period.
"This bill does not cram any DAP program down anybody's throat," said Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, who introduced the bill.
It's the bill's lack of specifics that have many small-boat fishermen concerned. More than a dozen fishermen testified at a recent hearing of the Senate Resources Committee, most saying the bill is too broad and would give regulators too much power to choose who receives the allocations.
Many fishermen said they depended on the groundfish fisheries to supplement salmon fishing. Removing open access could bankrupt some of them, they said. They also questioned whether the program would be in keeping with equal access laws and how people would be able to enter into the system.
"The pie will be divided and nobody will receive enough to survive off this," said Donald Lawhead Jr., who fishes from Kodiak and in Bristol Bay.
"With open access, I can survive," said Kodiak fisherman Shawn Dochtermann.
Some fishermen supported the bill, saying they recognize it as a way to protect Alaska fishermen and coordinate management of the fisheries.
"Every year our season is shortened by a week, and the race goes on and on," said Glen Carroll, a cod fisherman from Homer.
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