My Turn: Bering Sea crab catch shares a keeper

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2010

Everyone involved in the fishing industry is talking about the government's push toward catch-shares for fishery management. Thirteen fisheries in the U.S. operate under catch share plans. The big three are Alaska halibut and sablefish, which began in 1995, and Bering Sea crab in 2005.

As a 32-year crab fisherman in the Bering Sea, these are some of my observations:

For several years before crab-catch shares began, our boats only worked a few days a year as crab quotas slid to record lows. The industry was in economic free-fall from too many boats going after too few crab. Crews were underpaid, boat maintenance was getting deferred, bank loan payments were not being paid and many boats were on the verge of bankruptcy. Crab-dependent communities like St. Paul were getting no deliveries, and were literally facing extinction. We all desperately needed help.

The slower pace of crab-catch share fisheries has made them much safer. From 1991-2005, 26 vessels sank in the Bering Sea and 77 crabbers died - 50 times the U.S. worker fatality rate. Since 2005, there has been one death and no vessels have sunk. The slower pace also means we can soak our gear longer, and be more careful with handling and sorting the crab. Fewer pots are being used, meaning less impact on the sea floor and a doubling of crab caught per pot. This smaller, more efficient fleet has reduced our carbon footprint by 50 percent.

Before catch shares, 200 boats would race out, hope to fill up one time and it was over. That meant crab-oodependent communities like St. Paul were being left behind. The catch-share program has built in regional protection so dependent communities receive their historical landings. Now boats can make multiple trips to St. Paul or Dutch Harbor, while still fishing on very low crab quotas. Five years into the program, we find it helps us to work more cooperatively with processors and managers to prosecute the Bering Sea crab fisheries.

It's true that crab-catch shares caused the loss of many low paying, part-time jobs when the fleet downsized. But those were hardly "jobs" when you consider low crab quotas meant fishing lasted for a few days a year. None of us could count on this "race for crab" system to support our boats and families. Absent the race for crab, fishing seasons have lengthened to several months. Crew jobs are more stable and higher paying, averaging from $45,000 to $85,000. Overall, the catch share program has resulted in a more professional crew.

New entrants now have more opportunities to buy into the Bering Sea crab fisheries. Depending on which fishery, 12 to 18 percent of the catch-share holders are new fishermen who did not initially receive shares. Since 2005, there has been a nearly 32 percent increase in catch-share ownership by Alaskans.

The biggest shock to me of the new program is the fisherman's price paid for crab. Like many, I believed being forced to deliver only to certain processors would result in a monopoly and an unfair price. However, due to the carefully crafted regulations by the North Pacific Council, our price has maintained the same percentage as the processors receive for their products.

It was fun back in the day - all the boats firing up at the same time, preparing for the big race for crab no matter how bad the weather, each one of us hoping to catch the mother lode. It was an awesome feeling. I miss it, but how many friends and family do we maim or lose to that kind of fun? There was no way the lower crab populations could sustain the pressure needed to feed the oversized fleet.

The Bering Sea crab-catch share program is not perfect. I was a serious doubter, but now I can't think of a better program that will protect all the stakeholders. Crab-catch shares have given us a way to financially survive the big swings in crab populations. All we need now is a return to larger crab quotas - then the jobs and revenues will be back to levels of previous decades.

• Jim Stone worked his way from a Dutch Harbor crab process worker to the crab deck and eventually became the owner/operator of Bering Sea crab boats. He is a spokesman for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a harvester alliance that represents all crab fisheries of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The group is active in research, marketing and crab advocacy at all policy levels.

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