Some Alaska fishing organizations said Wednesday that a major federal fisheries bill launched by Sen. Ted Stevens could be strengthened with more economic safeguards for coastal fishing villages.
Stevens, the Bush administration and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy are calling for establishing more quota share-based fisheries in federal waters.
Stevens' bill, a revision of the nation's Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, would establish national guidelines for Limited Access Privilege Programs, called LAPPs. The LAPPs are designed to rebuild overfished stocks and eliminate the so-called "race for fish" in federal waters.
But fishermen in Alaska have learned through their own experience with Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs that some harm may result if the programs aren't designed carefully.
"We're seeing escalating cost of (quota) shares" that can concentrate ownership into a few hands, said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.
"Our basic concern is to make sure that people who live in coastal communities can still afford to buy into limited access fisheries," Behnken said.
Even in the commercial black cod and halibut commercial quota fishery in Southeast Alaska - held up by some as a model of a successful quota-based fishery - "the cost of entry is getting quite steep," Behnken said.
Additionally, in the new Bering Sea crab quota program established this year, the cost of purchasing quota shares has become prohibitively expensive. "It's millions," Behnken said.
The Bering Sea crab program "doesn't contain adequate controls on excessive consolidation," added Dorothy Childers, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
"A small number of people have become wealthy and about 800 people have lost their jobs," Childers said.
Both the Bering Sea crab and halibut-black cod IFQ fisheries are "grandfathered" into Stevens' bill, meaning that the fisheries would continue to function as they do now if the legislation passed.
Stevens said Wednesday at the Magnuson bill's first Senate committee hearing that he received more than 700 comments about reauthorizing the act.
He spent nearly a year working with regulators, scientists and the public at crafting the new bill.
Federal officials gave kudos to Stevens at Wednesday's hearing, saying that his legislation neatly dovetails with many of the Bush administration and U.S. Ocean Policy Commission's objectives.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, first enacted in 1976, has been revised six times in the past.
Stevens said this week that his bill would strengthen the nation's eight regional fishery management councils. It also would require new financial disclosure requirements for council members and would clarify the act's conflict of interest and recusal requirements, he said.
Many Alaskans had criticized an earlier draft of the bill's provision for seafood processor-owned fishing quotas, which they liken to sharecropping.
Gov. Murkowski came out against processor quotas this week because of the criticism from Alaskans, said Sue Aspelund, special assistant to the commissioner of Fish and Game.
Stevens removed the bill's provision for processor-owned quotas. But according to Behnken, the bill doesn't actually prevent processors from obtaining quota shares.
The bill would require licensing for saltwater anglers who fish in federal waters.
Stevens and others who testified Wednesday pointed out that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that manages federal fisheries in Alaska is a model for improving other fishery councils in the nation.
The bill basically codifies what Alaska has already been doing, he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.