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Fleet consolidation and loss of fishing jobs a hot topic at MSA hearing

Timed to coincide with the 25th annual Kenai River Classic invitation-only fishing derby, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) brought his Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard to Soldotna on Wednesday for a hearing on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Congress periodically reviews the Act, giving lawmakers a chance to fine-tune or make changes where needed. One theme was addressed by many of the dozen invited experts who testified.

Fleet consolidation is a predictable outcome of limited access privilege fisheries, or LAPs in the acronym-filled parlance of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA. A limited access fishery is one that has been privatized in some way. For example, in the Bering Sea, the crab fishery was rationalized more than 10 years ago, resulting in a fleet today that is just a fraction the size it was before privatization. That's because when the owners of boats also became the owners of crab quota, they could buy or lease that quota, and one boat could do the fishing of many. Some put the loss of crewman and skipper jobs from the year before rationalization to the next at over 900.

"In Alaska, the problem is now too few fishermen, not too few fish," said Linda Behnken of Sitka, who testified on behalf of the Halibut Coalition and the Longline Fishermen's Association.

"We found the conservation and management benefits commonly attributed to limited access, can be achieved with limited consolidation of fishing fleets, and that more fishermen making a living is better for a community," Behnken said. "In addressing the LAP provisions of the Act, we ask that you and the committee focus on supporting, rather than reducing fleet size."

A proponent of a limited access fishery is Kodiak's Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Databank and a lobbyist for the trawl industry. Senator Sullivan asked her to describe how an L-A-P differs from an open-to-entry fishery. She did so with a dessert analogy.

"So the race for fish is trying to get the most pie you can before your neighbor eats more than you do. The catch share program basically allocates to individuals or cooperatives, basically cuts that pie up into individual pieces," she said. "And each participant that has a fork at the table gets a slice of the pie. And then you can choose to eat that slice as slowly or as fast as you want - and whenever you want."

Duncan Fields, also of Kodiak, testified on behalf of the Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, and expanded on Bonney's pie analogy in his rebuttal to it.

"What she didn't amplify is that once those pieces are cut - first of all, they're not all equal pieces - and then only those people initially allocated a piece of the pie ever get to eat dessert," he said. "That's the barrier to entry that creates the graying of the fleet and the problem for young fishermen. That's it. That's what we're facing."

In his testimony, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten asked that Congress not take any action that would further consolidation.

"And we'd ask your committee and the U.S. Congress to avoid imposing programs here in Alaska outside the council process in either this, or other legislation, that could result in promoting consolidation, restricting competition in the processing industry, making access to fisheries more difficult for our resident fishermen, or generally having a negative impact on our fishing community's economies."

Other topics speakers addressed during the nearly three-hour hearing included changes to offshore sportsfishing regulations, subsistence fishing and the Community Development Quota program in Bering Sea villages.