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Commercial groundfish derbies in the Gulf of Alaska could become a thing of the past under a bill passed Monday in the state Senate.
The bill by Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, would allow the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission to set regulations to create a fisheries rationalization system that would allocate harvest shares among fishermen.
The current "open access" system sets a short time window for fishermen to catch as much as they can. Open access in some fisheries can last only a few days or so. The times and dates of the open access fisheries cannot be changed, which often results in fishermen fishing in dangerous weather.
Proponents of the bill say the harvest shares sold to fishermen would give them as much time as they need to pull in their catch.
Opponents argue that the proposal is not about safety. They say shares will be bought up by large corporations outside of the state, leaving Alaska fishermen out of the mix.
Short open access periods are not only unsafe, they also result in a lower quality fish, said Frank Homan, a commissioner with the state's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
"It overwhelms the fish processing capability," Homan said.
He said the rationalization plan would prevent large amounts of fish going to processors and result in better quality for consumers.
Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, voted against the bill because he said the permits could ultimately have a market value and fishermen will be tempted to sell them. This would make it more difficult for young people to get into the fishing business, Kookesh said.
"I grew up in a limited entry system," Kookesh said. "This is a form of limited entry."
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he believes the proposal would lead to ownership of fisheries moving out of the state. He said if fishermen from outside Alaska own the permits, they will leave the state at the end of the fishing season and take their money with them.
"They don't contribute to our community," Stevens said. "I'm not opposed to rationalization. I think it made it safer for halibut. My concern is the outward migration of ownership."
Bruce Twomley, chairman of the entry commission, said any plan to establish a so-called "dedicated access privilege" program with permits first would undergo public review.
"Anything that would be done would have to be done by regulation, which means putting proposals in front of the public," Twomley said.
Homan said it would take months to develop a proposal and put it through the public hearing process.
"If this bill passed there would be no imposition of this plan on a fishery without the full participation of the people in that fishery," he said. "It's not something that's going to be imposed on people."
Walter Sargent, a Kodiak fisherman, said the bill works against free enterprise.
"It gives amazing power to a small group of people, in other words, the board of fish," he said.
The bill passed 15-4 and still needs another procedural vote before moving to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Other proposals approved Monday in the Senate include plans to:
Establish a law making it a crime to intentionally kill a fetus. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said it would not affect laws making abortion legal. Opponents argued that the bill could make criminals out of mothers who remain in an abusive relationship where violence results in a miscarriage.
Women who drink while pregnant could be charged with a crime under the bill, said Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage.
Limit relations with nations considered the worst offenders of trafficking slaves.
Allow boroughs to eliminate or consolidate local service area road commissions that are not functioning.
Extend the deadline for salmon processors to apply for a salmon product development tax credit from Dec. 31, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2008.