Pew oceans report is not gospel

My Turn

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

I read with concern Mr. Munro's June 11 letter regarding the Pew Commission's report on the status of America's oceans. Mr. Munro used his perspective to indict both Sen. Stevens and Sen. Murkowski. In addition, Mr. Munro appears to accept the findings of the report as the gospel.

The Pew Commission cannot be viewed as an impartial entity. With few exceptions, the Pew Commission has rarely found a fishery it likes. Pew is well established as the primary funding entity for organizations opposed to the commercial fishing industry. Notwithstanding that, the report does identify serious problems in our nation's fisheries, although not in Alaska.

Those of us who derive our living from the sea care deeply for the ecosystem. If the ecosystem is not protected, we will lose our livelihood. That is why we are proud of the fishery management structure and practices that are in place in Alaska.

Yes, we have areas of concern, but our management system and our industry are focused on developing solutions. Unlike other regions, we do annual population surveys on age and abundance of nearly all of our species so we know how our fishery populations are faring on a continuing basis. We implemented the first mandatory observer program in the nation, funded by the industry, which enforces rules and generates information critical to sound fishery management. We are at the forefront of rationalization programs in the world, designed to reduce over-capitalization, decrease bycatch and increase yields.

These programs have worked. For example, in 1998 the American Fisheries Act (sponsored by Sen. Stevens) was implemented. The AFA reduced the Bering Sea pollock fishing fleet and allowed formation of cooperatives among harvesters and processors. Four years later, the harvest in that fishery is 99 percent pollock, bycatch is nearly non-existent, the resource is at a record level of abundance, the fishery is profitable, and the amount of yield (food) taken from each pollock has increased by over 20 percent. A success story by any standard, but fairly typical for Alaska.

The first major management action taken by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was to implement a cap on the total amount of groundfish that could be harvested each year in the Bering Sea. Even though the acceptable biological catch that could be taken from the Bering Sea is in excess of the cap - sometimes by several hundred thousand tons - it has never been exceeded.

If the current management system is changed, as recommended in the Pew report, I guarantee the cap will be eliminated and the total catch off Alaska will increase. That is because the proposed system will require the elimination of any reasonable chance for human error when establishing catch quotas. Eliminating error means eliminating choice. As a result, the scientists' recommendations will simply be implemented. That may sound good, but in the North Pacific we generally set our catch limits well below the amounts the scientists say we can harvest. The Pew recommendation would eliminate that option.

There are very few references to Alaska in the Pew report, and generally they are positive. For example, the report says Alaska's fisheries are "arguably, the best managed ... fisheries in the nation. Alaskans have done more to control bycatch and protect habitat from fishing gear than any other region in the nation." Given that, one wonders why the report does not extensively address the Alaska management system, extolling its virtues and holding it up as a standard for the rest of the country.

Certainly there are problems - major problems in some instances - in other regions of the United States. Many of those problems, such as the leakage of nutrients and pollutants into our water systems, have nothing at all to do with fishery management systems. Yet a recommendation to fundamentally change a management system that is proven to work is a major component of the Pew report. I suspect that is what really irritates Sens. Stevens and Murkowski.

The management system in Alaska has proven to be the finest in the nation and arguably the world. The last thing our Alaska fisheries need is for individuals to allow their personal political feelings to serve as a crusade to change the way we manage our resources. When it comes to fish, the politics of Sens. Stevens and Murkowski are right on. They should be applauded, not chastised.

• Larry Cotter is a former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and CEO of APICDA, a community development quota (CDQ) corporation in the Bering Sea.



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