Fishing quota fishermen get medical reprieve

Injured fishermen to be allowed to transfer shares to healthy people

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

Twenty-six-year-old Jason Miller spent the last three halibut seasons on his family's Petersburg vessel, writhing in a sea of pain.

Most of the time, the fourth-generation fisherman was strapped to a bunk, his leg, ankle and foot shattered from a 2002 accident.

Miller didn't think he had a choice.

He didn't feel so bad, really. Through the grapevine, he'd heard about fishermen in the federal Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program in worse straits. "Someone with a broken neck in Sitka had to go out," Miller said.

The reason that Miller and other injured halibut and black cod fishermen grit their teeth and climb aboard is that if they don't, they lose all the income from their IFQ shares.

Unlike fishermen participating in state-led fisheries, injured IFQ fishermen haven't been able to temporarily transfer their quota shares to healthy fishermen.

This week the North Pacific Fishery Management Council changed that with a medical-transfer provision.

In theory, Miller could have sold his halibut shares to make some money; but then he would have faced the logistical mess of buying into the program again. "It would have been a nightmare," he said.

The IFQ program for halibut and black cod was created 10 years ago and it allows fishermen to purchase shares of the total annual harvest. Generally speaking, the program has been well-received by halibut fishermen because it has led to higher prices and healthier stocks.

But the regional IFQ program never made any allowances for injured fishermen.

Cora Crome, who attended kindergarten through high school with Miller, didn't think this was fair. "It's tough for people who took out loans to pay for their quota," said Crome, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Assoc- iation.

For at least 20 years, the state of Alaska has allowed injured commercial fishermen to file paperwork including a doctor's affidavit, pay a $50 fee and temporarily transfer their commercial permits to a healthy person.

Crome has been lobbying the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to establish a similar program for IFQ fishermen.

Her efforts were successful this week.

The council passed a package of IFQ amendments during its Anchorage meeting including the program's first-ever medical transfer provision.

Similar to Alaska's emergency transfer provision, the National Marine Fisheries Service will require fishermen to obtain a doctor's affidavit and fill out paperwork. Fishermen will not have to pay a fee. All costs for running the IFQ program are deducted at a set percentage of the fishermen's ex-vessel catch value.

Previously, federal officials have been uneasy about creating a medical transfer provision because of possible abuse, Crome said.

The council addressed that problem by setting restrictions to prevent fishermen from leasing their quota share, Crome said.

The new rules will be written up for public comment, codified by the National Marine Fisheries Service and likely be in place in six months to a year, Crome said.

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