Twenty years ago, I was standing on the street corner across from the Anchorage Hilton wearing an enormous dried rockfish head. In my hands was a sign that said “Crab Rationalization Unfair to Crew.”
Surrounding me were other crab crewmen and their families holding similar signs. It was the culmination of a groundswell movement among crab crew who were just about to be thrown out of the industry by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which was meeting inside.
Tremendous wealth was about to be created by the Council as they privatized access to the multimillion-dollar Bering Sea crab fisheries and awarded them to a select group of vessel owners. This would severely shrink a fleet of crab boats that had been furiously, and often dangerously, competing for every crab in the Bering Sea. Ironically the irrational level of competition was spurred by the acute awareness that they were, in fact, fishing for a share of a future privatized fishery.
A Boat Buyback Program would compensate vessel owners cut out of the fishery. But for the thousand crewmen who would be left on the beach there was nothing on the table.
Many proposals emerged to address crew equity, including an industrywide insurance program and a rolling pool of quota that would be available to working fishermen. But, since crewmen work as independent contractors and are mariners under the Jones Act, they were unprotected by any type of labor laws. They would not receive any kind of compensation. They would in fact receive no consideration at all.
The reason, so eloquently expressed to me by the venerable Phil Smith, was: “The problem is… you guys don’t exist.”
It seemed to me that we must exist, or else who was pushing all those crab pots around? But, for all intents and purposes, he was — and continues to be — absolutely correct. Crewmen are legally invisible.
Crews aboard fishing boats are one of the only groups of laborers in Alaska not counted by the state or federal governments. They exist in a regulatory limbo.
Efforts have been made to correct this. The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC), in partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, invested considerable effort over a two-year period, starting in 2008, to create a real permanent crew license that would enable data collection. At the time ADF&G’s Jan Conitz, acting as project director, expressed the data gap like this: “The real problem is that we don’t actually know who is fishing as crew members. We have a database showing persons who purchased licenses, but we don’t know where they fished or how long or if they even fished at all. Others use a limited-entry permit to qualify for a crew licence. So we don’t even know who those people are, and since we don’t collect any other crew data, there is nothing we can use to check the accuracy of their reports.”
She went on to say: “It’s ridiculous that in this day and age we can’t characterize this workforce completely, that we have this data gap.”
That project was killed by the United Fishermen of Alaska.
At a meeting organized by SWAMC in 2010 at which the project was expected to move toward implementation, the representative for UFA announced that they had successfully lobbyed then
gov. Sean Parnell to withdraw support. Without the support of the governor, Fish and Game was officially out, and that meant the Crew Data Project was dead. One can only speculate on motives, but it is undeniable that prominent members of UFA held catch share quota.
The real losers were Alaska’s coastal communities. It’s a bad thing when over 20,000 fishermen “don’t exist” to lawmakers and regulators. That means that those deckhands — all small businesses in the eyes of the law — will never be recognized as stakeholders. Guess where they live.
It seems likely that more and more fisheries will turn to catch share programs for management. As access to our nation’s fisheries falls into private hands there will be inevitable wrangling among stakeholders. How these programs are shaped and implemented will be all about who is sitting at the table.
Coastal communities have had a seat, but it might best be described as a high chair. It is notable that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Advisory Panel has been shedding community representatives in favor of industry panelists lately. Crew, being nonexistent, does not qualify for inclusion.
But the Council does seem to be recognizing the crew data gap. In an Action Memo from its last meeting in October, the Council tasked its staff to “develop a discussion paper identifying a few (eg, 2-4) economic data components, including crew data, that 1) are not currently collected across all sectors but that could improve FMP and regulatory impact analyzes if collected from all sectors or all vessels participating in federally managed fisheries, and/or 2) should continue to be collected from catch share programs and could inform potential revisions to current Economic Data Reports (EDR) requirements.”
Economic Data Reports are required components of catch share fisheries. They are a good faith effort on the part of the Council to measure the effects of private access on the community at large. From the Discussion Paper: “In general, the purpose of the EDR requirements is to gather information to improve the Council’s ability to analyze the economic effects of the catch share or rationalization programmes, understand the economic performance of participants in these programmes, and help estimate the impacts of future issues, problems, or proposed revisions to the programs covered by the EDRs.”
The Memo goes on to say: “Staff were asked to evaluate the appropriate data collection mechanism and the appropriate frequency that minimizes burden and collection costs.” I would suggest that the mechanism for collecting crew data was identified in 2008. But it’s never too late.
Terry Haines has been a commercial fisherman in Kodiak for more than 30 years. He now produces the Alaska Fisheries Report for KMXT and is a member of the Kodiak City Council. He can be reached at email@example.com