Ever since the court-ordered ban on trawl fishing in Steller sea lion
foraging habitat went into effect on Aug. 8, the media have been awash in
protests that small trawlers and their crews, based in remote Alaska
coastal communities like Sand Point, King Cove or Kodiak, will be placed at
greater risk because they have to fish farther from shore in bad weather.
Ironically, some of the loudest protests are coming from bigger competitors
based out of Dutch Harbor, Seattle and even Newport, Ore., who take the
lion's share of the catch. Those competitors care not at all about Alaska's
small-boat fleet and are blaming sea lions to deflect attention from
themselves, who are at the root of the problem.
Excess fish-catching capacity and preemption by bigger boats pose the real threat to Alaska's small trawlers. The explosive growth of the modern North Pacific groundfish trawl fleet in the 1980s, much of it Seattle-based, has led to a glut of high-tech fishing capacity that vastly exceeds the available catch limits. Fierce allocation wars erupted throughout the 1990s as competing sectors of the fleet fought for limited shares of pollock and other groundfish. Fishing seasons in the Gulf of Alaska have been reduced to a matter of days, even hours, as the oversized trawl fleet races for shares of the allowable catch, much of it concentrated in the foul-weather winter months on pollock and cod spawning grounds -- and in Steller sea lion critical habitat.
Federal fisheries managers recognized this problem a decade ago but sat on their hands and let the race for fish spiral out of control, to the detriment of sea lions and Alaska's fishing communities. During the pollock allocation wars of the early 1990s, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council identified excess fishing capacity as a major threat to the future ecological, social and economic health of the groundfish fisheries, but did nothing to reduce it. Belated compromise measures to limit new entrants to the fisheries are far too little, too late, and do not address localized depletions of fish stocks, shortened fishing seasons, increased waste, reduced safety and other ills of overcapitalized fisheries.
The plight of small boats is worsened now that the so-called American Fisheries Act has consolidated control of the pollock fishery into the hands of a powerful few. That law, enacted by Congress in 1998 without public participation or review, created a closed class of fishing and processing companies that are dominated by Japanese and Norwegian multinational corporations. Those interests went behind closed doors to strike a deal and emerged with a monopoly on the largest fishery in the United States, leaving the community-based small boats high and dry. Small trawlers in Alaska don't stand a chance against bigger vessels belonging to the newly formed AFA fishing cooperatives, and they lack the economic clout to stake a claim to a piece of the groundfish pie if more fisheries are carved up into AFA-style monopolies or halibut-style individual fishing quotas. Such schemes are intended to slow or halt the race for fish and reduce fishing capacity, but they have also left many of Alaska's smallest and most economically vulnerable communities with diminished and declining access to a traditional fishery resource.
Alternatively, the Bering Sea Community Development Quota program provides an example of an allocation system intended to direct a share of benefits from public resources to coastal Native communities that are most dependent on them. However, the CDQ model has failed chiefly because it serves the interests of big factory trawl operators, not owner-operated community boats. Greenpeace and American Oceans Campaign support allocations that favor resident small-boat fishermen, Native and non-Native alike, because they have greater potential to be ecologically sound. This may be the only practical way to ensure that coastal communities will have predictable, long-term access to the fisheries and are able to fish in a manner that furthers goals for conservation, habitat protection, and safety.
One thing is certain: Neither the needs of sea lions nor Alaska's coastal communities are being served by the current regime. Fundamental changes to the groundfish allocation system that protect Alaska's rich marine ecosystems and the long-term economic viability of coastal fishermen are needed. A solution that protects sea lion food supplies and fishermen alike is possible if fisheries managers and political leaders have the will to address the underlying inequities and disparities that undermine the long-term health of coastal communities. With assured access to the fish, and cooperative arrangements between participating vessels, competition for limited shares of quota is eliminated. The added operational flexibility will enable the small trawlers to fish more slowly and prospect for new fishing grounds outside sea lion critical habitat while avoiding bad weather and enhancing safety.
Sustainable community fisheries and sea lion conservation are compatible goals. Efforts to save the Steller sea lion have not caused the predicament faced by Alaska's coastal communities, but they expose the festering problems faced by these communities and may yet provide an impetus to fix them.
Ken Stump is a former fisheries campaigner for Greenpeace and continues to represent Greenpeace at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Phil Kline is the fisheries program director for American Oceans Campaign.