Council to address cod conflict
"Cod Alley" is getting crowded, and fishermen want to limit the boats fishing in the congested fishing area in the Bering Sea. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council voted this week to study the issue, including restricting factory trawlers from buying cod offshore.
The PacificSeafood Processors Association, representing shore plants, is pushing for restrictions on flatfish factory trawlers from buying cod offshore, to protect shore plants in Unalaska, Akutan, King Cove and Sand Point.
According to the PSPA's Nicole Kimball, this year seven factory trawlers bought cod from 17 catcher boats, up from just one factory trawler that traditionally participated in prior years. The Amendment 80 factory trawlers act as motherships, processing but not catching the Pacific cod.
"The share delivered to motherships increased from 3.3 percent in 2016 to 12.7 percent in 2017, while shoreside processors had a reciprocal decline. This is a meaningful shift. At this point it is open-ended, and there is nothing to prevent future growth in this activity," Kimball testified.
Local government representatives shared the shoreplants concerns, citing a loss of tax revenues needed for schools and other services. On a smaller scale, it's reminiscent of the inshore-offshore battle in the pollock fishery about 20 years ago.
"This is a big deal," said Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty. "It looks like we've got trouble coming down the road again."
Ernie Weiss, the natural resources director of the Aleutians East Borough said he wanted every pound of fish to cross the docks in the borough, which includes King Cove, Akutan, Sand Point, and False Pass.
"We fully support the onshore processing of Bering Sea Pacific cod," Weiss testified.
Defenders of the offshore buyers included Jim Stone, owner of the catcher vessel Ocean Hunter. "Motherships offer another market," he said, saying the onshore sector is dominated by three major buyers.
Two of the cod-buying factory trawlers are owned by Fisherman's Finest, the vessels American No. 1, and Legacy. Company official Annika Saltman said they make j-cut fillets at sea, and help preserve a competitive market. One catcher vessel temporarily delivered to a mothership only because a shoreplant's cod processing was closed for renovations, but will return to the onshore sector, Saltman said.
Kimball said the shoreplants also provide a competitive cod market.
Various ideas were floated for limiting catcher vessel participation in the Bering Sea cod fishery, including controversial catch shares or individual fishing quotas. Weiss said he was "not a big fan" of catch shares.
IFQs are not among the alternatives the council will consider next year. The purpose and need statement, approved unanimously as agenda item C-7 Sunday, includes limiting cod trawling to vessels actually fishing in various years between 2010 and 2017.
Brent Paine, the executive director of United Catcher Boats, said something needs to be done to regulate fishing in the congested area with increasingly shorter seasons. "This is the last unrationalized fishery in the eastern Bering Sea," Paine said. "If you don't do anything, we're all going to be losers."
The crowded cod fishing grounds known as "Cod Alley" and the "Breadline" are located off the northern coast of Unimak Island. Paine said the active fishing area is 1.5 miles long by 40 miles wide.
Cod fisherman Steve Beard of the fishing vessel Golden Pisces said his revenues are down 50 percent in the past two years because of more trawlers fishing cod in the Bering Sea. Twice, he said he's entangled gear with other fishing vessels. "I don't want to be a Walmart greeter. I just want to fish cod," he said.
"It's turning into a parking lot," said council member Craig Cross.
And after much discussion, the council established a "control date of Dec. 31, 2017 that may be used as a reference date for a future management action to limit catcher processors from acting as motherships in the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands trawl catcher vessel Pacific cod fishery."