ANCHORAGE - Federal legislation to buy out part of the Bering Sea crab fleet could be written soon, according to Sen. Ted Stevens.
The measure would be among some potential changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the nation's primary fisheries law.
Congress must reauthorize the act by Oct. 1, and Stevens said at an Anchorage news conference Friday he believes he can work in some language allowing for the buyout and individual fishing quotas.
Crabbers want federal help to reduce an overbuilt fleet of more than 250 boats.
That request comes following the recent crash of Bering Sea snow crab and other varieties. Packing houses that process crab also have taken a big financial hit.
The cause of the crab crash is not fully understood. Big swings in crab populations seem to occur naturally and mysteriously, state and federal biologists said. Conservation groups contend that heavy fishing pressure exacerbates the swings.
Several members of the crab industry have suggested as much as $100 million to buy out some boats.
Stevens said he thinks crabbers deserve the same kind of help that farmers get when their crops fail.
He said any federal buyout, however, would have to be substantially repaid by boats remaining in the fishery. Any boats bought out would be barred from returning.
Regulators would need to set individual quotas for fishermen in conjunction with the buyout, Stevens said. Giving fishermen their own share of the harvest would end the race for crab and would prevent another destructive fleet buildup.
Individual quotas are controversial because they essentially give people an ownership stake in a public resource. Congress put a moratorium on new IFQ programs several years ago to allow time to study how the system operates in a handful of fisheries, including Alaska halibut and black cod.
Stevens said he's been against lifting the moratorium, but now favors allowing the nation's federal regional fishery management councils to enact such programs if they feel them necessary.
That means the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates commercial fishing off Alaska, could install individual quotas, while other regions less enamored of the idea could choose to avoid them.
The primary concern is whether individual quotas can prevent the overfishing of certain stocks, Stevens said. If they can, then the councils should have the option, he said.
``The worst thing that could happen to this state would be to have some of our commercial species listed as endangered,'' he said.
Tom Casey, who represents a group of mostly Seattle-based crab boats, said he was confident that Stevens could move the the buyout plan through Congress.
``Ted Stevens has voted for billions of dollars of agricultural subsidies to help his colleagues,'' Casey told the Anchorage Daily News. ``Whatever he wants for the Bering Sea crab buyout, those other senators owe him.''
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