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One Man's Opinion: Sorry, you've just been rationalized

February 2006 - One Mans Opinion - OneMansOpinion.jpg
By Peter Redmayne
February 01, 2006

Fish is an irrational business, so it’s no surprise that from time to time managers, regulators and stakeholders weigh in with plans to “rationalize” a fishery. The latest instance of this is the Alaska king and snow crab fishery in the Bering Sea.

The basic premise was that there were too many boats chasing too few crabs (since 1996, Alaska snow and king crab catches have plummeted from more than 200 million pounds to less than 50 million pounds).

So, instead of setting a fixed quota and letting fishermen race to catch crabs “Olympic style,” the industry convinced its good friend and benefactor, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, to slip a rider through on a spending bill, and voila! Their fishery was rationalized.

Boats were bought out of the fishery and fishermen were given individual quotas so they could catch their crabs when they wanted, not when they had to, which was often in the middle of a raging storm.

This plan had a wrinkle, though. For the first time, the government doled out quotas to processors, too. Never mind that the U.S. Department of Justice opposed the processor quotas because they were “anticompetitive.” In Alaska, the door on the crab business was slammed shut. You were either in or out.

For boat owners who ended up with quotas — and who had the money to buy more — the rationalization has been a boon. Instead of chasing crab for three or four days and then tying up to the dock, they could keep their boats working for months.

Some of the processors did very well, too, especially those who took the money and ran by selling their quotas to other processors.

Now that last fall’s Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, the first “rational” crab fishery, is in the books, Alaskans are taking a harder look at what their senator did to their crab fishery. And quite a few of them are not at all happy.

Fewer boats mean fewer jobs for skippers and deckhands. It also means fewer dollars for businesses that service boats and their crews.

“When they went from 250 to 88 vessels in one year, that’s not a reduction. That’s a collapse. That’s a wipe-out,” the mayor of Kodiak, one of Alaska’s largest fishing ports, told the Alaska Journal of Commerce this January.

The mayor of King Cove, a small fishing town on the Alaska Peninsula, claimed that the new plan was robbing local businesses of 75 percent of their income.

Down in Seattle, though, there were plenty of smiles, at least among boat owners who were finding they could pay smaller crew shares, since there was so much competition for the available slots. Processors, however, were grumbling that they paid the boats too much and were taking a bath on king crab (since October the price of red king legs and claws has plummeted by $2 a pound).

Snow crab has tanked, too, so Alaska crabbers may be in for a shock when they see what processors are willing to pay for snow crab this winter.

Although the pendulum will swing back and forth in favor of processors or boats, what is clearer now than ever before is that whatever happens in the short term, the long-term winners in the Alaska crab fishery will be the big Seattle-based boat owners and processors.

As for Sen. Steven’s Alaska constituents — they will have to come to grips with the fact that they have been rationalized.

Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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