Stevens' amendment stirs ire of black cod fishermen

Law would give Petersburg fisherman, partners millions of dollars in fishing rights

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

ANCHORAGE - An amendment attached to a spending bill by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens would give a Petersburg commercial fisherman and his partners millions of dollars worth of rights to harvest black cod.

The amendment would override decisions by two federal courts as well as federal fishery regulators.

The courts and the regulators have ruled that John Winther of Petersburg does not deserve the catch rights, known as individual fishing quotas.

Stevens, R-Alaska, added the amendment to a bill to fund the Commerce, Justice and State departments next year. The amendment does not mention Winther but the effect of the language could award his fishing companies the right to catch about 450,000 pounds of black cod annually.

The amendment has angered other commercial black cod fishermen whose catch rights would have to be trimmed to accommodate Winther. The government limits how much black cod may be caught by the overall fleet each year in Alaska waters and the pool cannot be expanded. The catch limit for this year is about 38 million pounds.

"This whole thing is just wrong and unfair," said Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, a Seattle-based trade group for much of the black cod fleet. Many of the group's 95 vessels are based in the Seattle area but fish off Alaska.

Alverson told the Anchorage Daily News the amendment could cost many black cod fishermen $10,000 to $50,000.

Stevens said members of his staff, not Winther, brought him the amendment language and he attached it to the spending bill, which has passed the Appropriations Committee and now awaits action by the full Senate. Stevens is chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Stevens said he is trying to fix a long-standing injustice for Winther.

Winther, reached by phone in Seattle, declined to comment.

Winther has contributed $19,000 to Republican political organizations or candidates, including Stevens, since 1997, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The black cod fishery in 1995 was converted to an IFQ system, where each fisherman received rights to catch an individual share, or percentage, of all available fish each year. Shares were based on the average amount of black cod a fisherman had caught from 1985 through 1990.

Winther's partnerships received 334,000 pounds of initial IFQs, based on the current catch limit. He and his partners asked for more.

They sought to also receive credit for black cod his two boats, the 124-foot Prowler and the 155-foot Ocean Prowler, had caught in 1987 through 1990 while under charter to the federal government to conduct test fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.

The test fishing surveyed the health of the black cod population. The information helps set the annual catch limit for the fleet.

Officials for the National Marine Fisheries Service twice rejected Winther's argument that the survey catches constituted commercial catches that could count toward issuance of IFQs.

Winther sued, losing in both U.S. District Court in Alaska and in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Appeals Court judges said that according to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the foremost ocean fishing law that the Alaska senator helped write, the black cod Winther's boats caught while test fishing for the government did not qualify as "commercial fishing" for earning IFQs. The judges also noted that the test fish were not caught under normal circumstances in competition with other fishermen.

"Almost all of the fish caught on the NMFS charter expeditions were caught in areas of the Gulf of Alaska that were closed at the time to commercial fishing," according to the 2000 appeals court opinion.

Stevens said Wednesday that Winther deserves credit for the survey catches because the test fishing his boats did on behalf of the government were key in establishing the IFQ-style fishery, which replaced a dangerous and wasteful open scramble for fish with a stable and lucrative harvest. That harvest last year was worth more than $71 million overall for about 875 fishermen or fishing companies, according to federal officials.

Stevens said he tried to fix Winther's problem with language he inserted into a major rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996, but he said federal bureaucrats failed to follow through by drafting the proper regulations.

Stevens said he was not aware of the court decisions, but of those and the rulings by administrators within the fisheries service, the senator said: "They're wrong."

"This is an old sore," Stevens said. "I thought we'd already taken care of this."

"If other people want to squawk, they can squawk all they want. ... They wouldn't have an IFQ program if these people hadn't done the surveys."

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