Government shutdown, if it continues, could cost Alaska’s lucrative Bering Sea fisheries

Fishing trawlers lined up in Dutch Harbor, on Sep. 24, 2013, in Unalaska, Alaska. (Photo courtesy/James Brooks)

The federal government shutdown is already causing problems for participants in the upcoming fishing season in the Bering Sea, which are likely to escalate if the stalemate in Washington, D.C. continues.

Even if the shutdown does persist, the federal government will allow the Bering Sea fisheries to start as scheduled, with an initial opening for cod Jan. 1, and a second opening for pollock and other species Jan. 20.

But the fisheries are heavily regulated, and before boats can start fishing, the federal government requires inspections of things like scales — for weighing fish — and monitoring equipment that tracks the number and types of fish being caught. And the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates the Bering Sea fisheries, isn’t doing those inspections during the shutdown.

Other boats need special permits before they can start fishing, and those permits aren’t being issued during the shutdown, either.

Pollock are one of the major species caught in the Bering Sea fisheries. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

“My understanding is the vessels that have not been certified yet will not be certified until the government opens up again,” said Haukur Johannesson, whose company, Marel, provides scales to the huge factory vessels that work in the Bering Sea. “And if they don’t get certified, they cannot go fishing.”

The scope of the problems couldn’t immediately be determined, as many industry representatives said they were still assessing potential impacts or declined to go into specifics. NMFS’s law enforcement offices, which are still open during the shutdown, has received calls from “a small percentage of fishermen requiring an inspection,” Al Duncan, a Sitka-based assistant special agent in-charge, said in a email.

The Bering Sea fisheries are a major industry for Alaska, and for Washington, where the largest boats are headquartered. Annual catches are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and Bering Sea pollock is used in mass market products like fish sticks and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

The shutdown would only have to affect a small number of Bering Sea boats for the economic impact to be substantial — a single fishing trip for a large factory trawler can be worth millions of dollars.

Nearly all of the large boats that fish for cod starting Jan. 1 have already had their required inspections, said Chad See, who leads a trade group that represents them, the Freezer Longline Coalition. And there are still more than three weeks before the start of the more lucrative pollock season, which could leave enough time for inspections to take place if the shutdown ends.

But the shutdown is already causing problems for at least one boat.

The 180-foot Baranof, which works in a number of different fisheries from crab to cod, has more than two dozen crew members who flew out Wednesday to Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, for the winter fishing season.

They were planning to start fishing for red crab Jan. 1, said Doug Wells, government affairs director for Romanzof Fishing Co., which owns the boat. But before the Baranof can leave the dock, it needs an electronic scale to be certified by federal regulators.

And right now, because of the shutdown, those regulators are unavailable to do the inspection, even though they’re already in Dutch Harbor and willing to help, Wells said.

“It’s infuriating,” Wells said in a phone interview from Seattle. “These are just guys that have done a ton of work and are sitting there ready to go, and are being prevented by a bunch of politicians.”

The red crab fishery closes in mid-January, and if the Baranof can’t make its catch by then, the company’s losses would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wells said.

He said Romanzof and other fishing companies and industry groups are pressing members of Congress and agency officials for a fix.

The shutdown is also causing problems for companies that supply fishing boats with observers — the independent scientists who, on the government’s behalf, ride on the boats and gather data on fish that are caught and thrown back.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is still holding required training classes for observers, said Stacey Hansen, program manager at Saltwater, an Anchorage-based observer company.

But, she added, NMFS is not holding “debriefings” for observers when they return from a fishing trip — which are required before those observers can go on on their next trips. That’s sidelined three of her employees, with two more who will be affected by the end of the weekend, she said.

“I’ve got a group of people that are now stuck,” Hansen said. “These people are in purgatory, they’re in limbo — they’re just sitting and waiting until they can get on with their lives.”

Veterans of the Bering Sea fishing industry said they’ve survived past government shutdowns without too many damage.

“It’s happened before and it’s worked out,” said Brent Paine, who runs United Catcher Boats, a trade group of cod- and pollock-fishing boats. But, he added: “If you call me up next week and we’re still in the same situation, I think the anxiety level will probably be up quite a bit.”

Paine and others stressed that the federal employees who are still on the job have been diligent.

“The people we’ve talked to within National Marine Fisheries Service today and yesterday have been very supportive and helpful,” Paine said. “This is the border wall that’s causing the problem.”