The Department of Fish and Game does an exemplary job of managing Alaska's fisheries, and Commissioner McKie Campbell has provided sound leadership overall. Unfortunately he is advocating a fishery policy that is misguided and would needlessly hurt fishermen and communities in Alaska and across America's coasts.
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Commissioner Campbell recently advocated that Fishery Management Councils be given the authority to control where fishermen sell their catch. This would in practice give councils the power to require that fishermen must be "linked" to a specific processor to receive fishing privileges such as individual fishing quotas or similar fishery "rationalization" measures. In an ideal world, a council might use that power sparingly. In reality, it would turn fishermen into sharecroppers rather than independent business people.
The federal law governing marine fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, gives regional fishery management councils the authority to conserve and manage fisheries, not to engineer or jury-rig the marketplace. The fact that the industrial trawl fisheries for Bering Sea pollock received a special Congressional allowance to form linked cooperatives does not mean that community-based fisheries should sacrifice the independent fishing livelihoods that support families and coastal communities.
Commissioner Campbell suggests that some degree of fishermen to processor linkage is necessary to protect processing jobs in communities. His fear is that fishermen might change their delivery patterns and leave some processors without enough product to remain viable. His concern is misguided. Most fishermen have good business relations with processors and will not sacrifice that for a passing gamble. Plus, voluntary cooperatives give fishermen and processors the choice of negotiating delivery arrangements that optimize value and increase local community stability. If communities seek measures to ensure that delivery patterns do not change too abruptly, the answer is to link deliveries to communities, ports or regions, not to individual processing companies.
Current legislation pending in the U.S. Senate and House would allow for voluntary co-ops and would also authorize regional delivery measures. Neither bill allows processor quota or mandatory fishermen-to-processor linkages. Congress should reject the suggestion that these bills be rewritten to give councils the authority to tie fishermen to specific processors.
Every lame duck administration is tempted to freelance important public policy decisions on the way out the door. The Department of Fish and Game should resist that temptation and end its misguided advocacy of a bad policy.