My turn: Work on Magnuson-Stevens Act is not over

Posted: Monday, December 25, 2006

Mr. Dave Benton, in his Dec. 13 My Turn, characterized the Alaska pollock fishery as an example of how the Magnuson-Stevens Act "Americanized" the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. But the American Fisheries Act, which privatized and monopolized the fishery, was really a square off between Norwegian-funded factory trawlers and Japanese-owned shore plants. When it was over, the entire fishery was owned by a few big, mostly foreign, companies.

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Alaska's pollock fishery was a free-range cow that the whole world was chasing around with a three-legged stool and a milk bucket. Our response was to fence the pasture and give away the cow. Knowing that Bossy is healthy is small consolation to the guy who can't have any more milk.

In praise of the act's ecosystem safeguards, he wrote: "Bycatch is closely monitored and has been substantially reduced. Extensive swaths of the ocean floor have been closed to fishing to protect essential habitat."

First, bycatch has been reduced largely by calling it something else. Saleable fish now caught accidentally with the target species are being renamed "secondary species." Both saleable and nonsaleable bycatch will become tradable commodities. Boats that overcatch these species can buy blocks from boats that don't to avoid being shut down. So the amount of these species taken will never be reduced. Why should it be? It's money in the bank. Good policy would reward techniques that specifically target fish, not the opposite.

Also, to say that bycatch is "closely monitored" is an inside joke. The amount of observer coverage on groundfish boats is pathetic. Boats with observers aboard fish quite differently than those without. Requests for a period of 100 percent observer coverage to provide an accurate set of numbers have been denied, even though a tax on the "secondary species" trawl fishery for black cod alone could easily pay for it. Trawl black cod has been classified as saleable bycatch, even though they use a different kind of net on different grounds as the target species. Another inside joke.

As far as 'extensive swaths" of closed grounds, not letting a trawler tear his net to ribbons on a patch of coral as sharp as broken glass is like not letting someone punch himself in the face. Nursery grounds for crab and cod in the flats where a bottom trawl rolls easily remain open. And they probably will, with the bycatch-trade system in place.

The council is presently considering a sector split that locks in gear types. To compete with each other in the "race for fish" trawlers and their nets have grown bigger, badder and less discriminate. With the race over, why are we locking in the race cars? It has often observed that in a rationalized world all of the cod in the Gulf of Alaska could easily be caught with pots, with higher quality, more community equity and virtually zero bycatch.

The Alaska Constitution tells us to manage public resources for "the maximum benefit of its people." Our Department of Fish and Game commissioner wants to redefine "maximum benefit" as "optimum yield." That made me scratch my head. But then I read the McDowell Group's excellent report titled, "State of Alaska Seafood Economic Strategies - Draft Report." Highly recommended. It is available on its Web site - objective, plainspoken and pertinent; I can't say enough good things about the McDowell Group's professionalism and its product. The report clearly calls for the state to gather socioeconomic data before proceeding. This is something many fisherman and community groups have been asking about for years.

Raw economic data tells you about the size of the pie. Socioeconomic data tells you how the pie is sliced and who gets a piece. "Optimum yield" means we want a big pie. "Maximum benefit" means our sons and daughters might actually get to taste it.

Work on the Magnuson-Stevens Act is not over. It is entering its next phase. It is a blob of molten metal right now. What kind of sword it becomes will depend on who hammers on it as it cools. Regional fisheries associations, in particular, are important to watch as they develop. They could be used to steal the pie, or to slice it.

• Terry Haines is a resident of Kodiak.

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