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 December 8, 2005

National group encourages fishermen

Peninsula Clarion

Fishermen from all over the United States are uniting to create the first national organization devoted to commercial fishermen’s interests in more than 25 years, an effort that is drawing cautious, but mostly supportive, responses from Alaskan fishermen.

“It might be a real benefit to join forces with a national organization and focus on issues we can all agree on,” said Drew Sparlin, who driftnets in Cook Inlet.

The Commercial Fishermen of America announced its formation in November in Seattle. Currently no other national organization is devoted solely to commercial fishermen’s interests.

Although concerned that a large, national organization might not always represent the fishermen they claim to speak for, Sparlin said the industry would benefit from better national representation.

“Often we have very little audience in national media,” he said. “(And) the impact of international competition can be better addressed by a national organization.”

Fishermen suffer from a lack of national representation, said Douglas Blossom a setnetter in Cook Inlet. And a national organization might be better equipped to educate the public about commercial fishing issues than regional and local organizations, he said.

But Blossom worries a national organization might end up like some other large organizations formed to represent commercial fishermen.

Blossom said some large organizations, such as the United Fishermen of Alaska, have evolved to promote processor’s interests rather than fishermen’s interests.

“They carry a lot of voice, but it’s the big businesses that talk,” he said. “(The Commercial Fishermen of America) could work real well if they keep it to the fishermen and not to the processors.”

Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Paul Shadura said he does not expect the Commercial Fishermen’s Association to stray from representing their interests and that the organization has a valuable role to fill.

“We wanted to have a national voice for the commercial fishing industry. And when I say commercial industry, I mean from the perspective of commercial fishermen,” Shadura said. “I haven’t heard anyone in our group say (the association) is a bad idea.”

He said there are many issues for which they need a national voice, such as the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act. The act governs fisheries management, including health care, workers compensation, pollution, port facility protection and activities in federal waters.

Congress periodically reviews the act for reauthorization in order too keep it current and to address new issues.

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a big reason for us to get together,” Shadura said. “It’s important that (Congress) get it right.”

However, the Commercial Fishermen’s Association is not likely to be up and running before Congress reviews the Magnuson-Stevens Act next year. The organization is still in its infancy and will probably not be fully functional until fall, according to Jeremy Brown, a fishermen serving on the organization’s structural committee.

But the Magnuson-Stevens Act represents only one of many important issues organization will address, according to Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Grader said other issues the organization hopes to tackle include health care, funding for small ports, labeling and access to markets.

“There is a real crisis for fishermen right now in health care,” he said. “These are not sexy issues, but they are the bread and butter of the fishing industry.”

A national organization also might help keep federal manipulation of local fishing politics in check, said Jan Kornstad, a setnetter in Nikiski.

“A national organization can keep better tabs on that,” she said.

Before offering her support, however, Kornstad said she would like to know more about where the funding for the organization will come from, how its members will be elected and how it will address local concerns at the federal level.

“There’s always a concern that people in power will abuse that power,” she said.

Brown and Grader said the organization’s structural committee is in the process of answering those questions now, but the organization will probably collect dues from its commercial fishing members.

“If you truly represent fishermen you can’t be funded by outside parties,” Grader said.




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