Part of Bering Sea Pacific cod fishery could move toward quota system

Pacific cod (Photo Courtesy of Holland Dotts & the Alaska Marine Conservation Council)

About a year after federal regulators dramatically cut the Pacific Cod quota in the Gulf of Alaska, some fishermen in the Bering Sea say there are too many boats fishing for the declining species.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking into the problem, but potential solutions are likely to be controversial.

Since Pacific cod stocks crashed in the Gulf of Alaska in recent years, members of the fishing industry say fishermen are focusing their efforts farther west.

Tom Enlow is the president of UniSea, which operates a large shore-side processor in Unalaska. He said more vessels — especially trawlers — are crowding the fishing grounds. He also said there are more offshore processors competing for their cod.

“You’re seeing people who have historically not participated in these fisheries – as a processor standpoint – now coming into the fishery,” Enlow explained. “So there’s a lot of excess capacity now and pressure on this resource.”

Crowded fishing grounds are dangerous, and some trawlers say the congestion is causing a race for fish.

Brent Paine is the executive director of United Catcher Boats, which represents a number of Bering Sea trawl vessels. He said the increased effort is pushing vessels to fish for Pacific cod in rough weather and throw bycatch prevention efforts, mostly related to Pacific halibut,  to the wayside.

“You got kind of a perfect storm going on here: You have more and more vessels entering a fishery, you’ve got less fish available to be caught, and now this year in 2019, we ended up with a 13-day season,” Paine said. “Four years ago, it never even closed.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is examining the growth of offshore processors and the number of trawl vessels participating in the federal fishery as separate issues.

Last week, the council took up Paine and others’ request to look into a catch share plan for trawl catcher vessels, which would split up the sector’s catch between individual boats before the season begins.

The move would limit the number of vessels that can participate in the fishery and reduce competition.

Other fisheries like halibut and pollock use that management structure.

The catch would be split up by awarding vessels ownership of quota shares, which act much like a stock share in a business. Each share would represent a certain percentage of the catch allocated to the Bering Sea trawl sector each year. The trawl sector receives 22 percent of the total federal catch in the region.

“It would be allocated out to people who have been historically participating in the fishery, and they can slow the fishery way down and catch their individual allocation in a cooperative manner instead of racing for the fish,” Paine added.

A specific date range would determine historical participation and therefore who gets shares and how many.  That’s likely to be a contentious issue if and when that date range is determined.

As it stands now, only trawlers are asking for a catch share plan, but the conversation worries fishermen in other gear groups.

Homer-based commercial fisherman Erik Velsco participates in the federal under 60-foot pot fishery in the Bering Sea. He also fishes in the state fishery, which takes a slice out of federal cod allocations in the region.

“That’s the worry, is that once we do one, do we have to do all of them? Can we have part of the fishery rationalized and the other part not?” Velsco questioned.

He belongs to the North Pacific Fisheries Association, which represents small and large fixed gear vessels that participate in Bering Sea Pacific cod fisheries.

The group’s President, Malcolm Milne, said it hasn’t taken an official stance on a potential catch share plan for trawlers, but the group worries the conversation would eventually include the entire fishery, as other catch share programs have.

“The idea of catch shares in the Bering Sea and possibly the Gulf has come up. If they establish catch shares, all of a sudden, what is now a public resource becomes privatized,” Milne said. “In the past, when they’ve given these shares away, or allocated them, then people had an instant asset to buy and sell. Depends who gets the qualifying years and who’s the ones writing the program as it turns out who gets the shares.”

No one is able to say how this conversation will shape the future of the cod fishery in the Bering Sea yet.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to revisit the issue later this year when it’s due to receive a scoping paper from council staff.

Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz contributed to this report.