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Crab Rationalization: A Gorilla in a Wedding Dress

April 15, 2006

By Terry Haines - Arni Thomson, representing the recently enriched boat owners who received Bering Sea crab quota, has been making the rounds trumpeting the triumphs of the rationalization program.

He says it "was designed to stop the frenzied derby-style race for fish, protect the crab resource and reduce the safety risks of the world's deadliest job." It accomplishes none of these goals.

Crab rationalization is about money. Frilly talk about safety, sustainability, and breathing "economic viability" are like jamming a wedding dress onto a gorilla. It just doesn't fit. About the "facts and statistics" cited by Mr. Thomson:

Mr. Thomson cites the lack of fatalities in the past red king crab fishery despite "severe storm conditions" as proof the fishery is safer now. What he fails to mention is the weather did not keep the boats tied to the docks. They fished in storm conditions anyway, to deliver during the window of time specified by processors. And they were grinding for weeks rather than days, because one boat is now catching the crab of many. And they are fishing with greenhorns now, because of the new pay scales. The lack of deaths is a testament to the few veteran skippers and crewmen left, not the new regime.

Mr. Thomson cites then lower dock prices and fleets reduced by more than half as benefits of crab rationalization. I realize that loss of the free market and 850 families without income over Christmas was a victory for someone, but it wasn't fishermen, or Alaskans. And fishermen had better get used to excuses made for the lower prices, like market conditions and foreign competition. The free market is gone, and if you have a problem with price, you can forfeit the arbitration tax culled from you during the season for the privilege of taking on the processor's fleet of MBAs and lawyers after the season. Good luck with that.

Mr. Thomson falsely equates fewer pots on the grounds with "reduced bycatch mortality". Fish and Game has never based their statistics on the number of pots, but on the CPU, or "catch per unit effort", in other words, how many pots are pulled. Good fishing means less pot pulls, whether you are using five pots or five hundred. Therefore undersize mortality is the same.

In fact bycatch mortality is higher now. This is due to "high grading" or throwing back crabs with missing legs or barnacles. The processors, with the power given them by PQs, have instituted a strict grading regime, paying much less for imperfect crab. So they go overboard. ADF and G assumes a twenty five percent mortality rate on these rejects.

Mr. Thomson admits that it was surprising for Kodiak to receive a similar amount of deliveries as last year. The fact is the whim of the processor now determines the port of delivery, not the free market. As far as the NPFMC's eighteen month review at the end of which "coastal residents will have their own facts and statistics revealing what the new style of management has meant to them." all you have to do is go to the coffee shop in Kodiak to find the answer to that mystery. Ask the crabber sitting there without a boat. Then ask the proprietor how many lattes that man can afford to buy.

Mr. Thomson tries to equate "lost jobs" due to crab rationalization to market forces that occur "in modern-day industries struggling to remain competitive in world markets". He has written: "Captains, and crew members and vessel owners are not earning enough money to sustain a decent living if they are fishing crab only 14 days a year. Because of the crab rationalization program, those who continue to participate can now anticipate months of fishing and make a living in a safer environment." This is wrong on four points:

1. Skippers and crew do not have "jobs" now. They are independent contractors working for a share of the catch under the precepts of the Jones Act. They provide their own equipment and pay their share of expenses. In other words they pay to play and they don't always win. Owners skippers and crew have always shared the risks and rewards of fishing. The "economic efficiencies" touted as benefits of the program are achieved by privatizing the public resource and outlawing the free market.

2. The truth about "fourteen days of fishing" is that you were making about a thousand dollars a day. Most people would agree that's not a bad job. Sure, if you are lucky enough to find a position this year, you will work for months. For the same money. Shares under rationalization are one quarter of what was paid last year. Imagine your pay going down by three quarters in one year.

3. The industry will be no safer, perhaps less so. The seasons are longer, and anecdotal evidence shows skippers will continue to grind long hours, with greenhorns, to get the product to the dock alive, and in the processor's delivery window. Remember, the boat in "The Perfect Storm" left the dock in response to pressure from the processor.

4. Most glaringly, equating world wide economic forces with having a federal law passed that removes competition is ludicrous. Unless by "what occurs in modern day industries" Mr. Thomson is referring to the industries of China, or Russia, or Malaysia. Is that the model we are so eager to follow?
Mr. Thomson talks about retraining opportunities for fishermen to enter the merchant marines. This is like shooting a cowboy's horse out from under him and handing him a voucher to train as a cab driver in New York City. Thanks a lot, buddy. Loan programs are useless to someone who doesn't have a job to make the down payment, and don't compare well to having the quota handed over for free.

Finally, Mr. Thomson's heartfelt "thank yous" to Ted Stevens are sincere, I'm sure. Senator Stevens, as Chair of Appropriations, took the "crab rider" and fiercely stuck it onto a giant, bloated spending bill, despite objections from Senators McCain and Snowe, the Justice Department, the General Accountability Office, United Fishermen of Alaska, the United Federation of Natives, editorials from Anchorage Daily News, the Seattle Times and many other newspapers... in fact if you weren't making a bundle of money from it, you were probably against it.

He thanks the Senator for "stabilizing the crab industry and its dependent coastal communities."

Well, I guess that part is true. A desert is a very stable environment.

"Arni Thomson speaks for the Alaska Crab Coalition, which like the Alaska Groundfish Databank, represents a partnership between certain boat owners and processors who will be greatly enriched by privatization. In no way should Mr. Thomson be seen as representing the average boat owner."

© AlaskaReport News

See Terry Haines' Previous Posts Here

Terry Haines is a Kodiak deckhand and representative for Fish Heads, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the vitality of Alaska's fishing communities. Contact Terry Haines

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