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Senate considers bill to create system of whiting quotas
By Joel Gallob Of the News-Times 8/8/05

Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) last week introduced a bill, S 1549, that would create a system of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ) in the Pacific Whiting fishery by providing cooperative shares to fishermen and to shore-based processors who have historically participated in that fishery.

The whiting fishery, which began only in the early 1990s, is now one of the biggest on the West Coast. Newport and Astoria are the two key ports in the fishery.

"I believe that when enacted, S. 1549 will complement the efforts being made by the Council to conserve and manage the Pacific groundfish fishery through a trawl quota program and restrictions on bycatch," the senator wrote to Donald Hansen, chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. "Further, a whiting cooperative plan holds great promise for our coastal communities by improving the economics of the fishery." Smith asked the council to review the bill and make "substantive comments" upon it.

Kent Craford, a spokesman for West Coast Seafood Processors Association based in Portland, said the bill should offer several benefits to the fishery, the industry and the coastal economy. And, he said, his organization has been joined in supporting it by the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, an organization very involved in the whiting fishery, which is headquartered in Newport.

"We have formed a partnership and asked for federal legislation to rationalize the Pacific Whiting fishery and implement a system of ITQs for the harvesters and the processors of whiting. The legislation only involves a shore-based sector, not the other sectors of the whiting industry," said Craford. The whiting industry's processing sector has three sub-sectors: the shore-based processors; the boats that catch and process their own whiting at sea; and the large "mother ships" that send out vessels which bring back whiting for on-board processing.

In order to determine who is in and who is out in the ITQ program, the legislation identifies a period (1994 through 2004 for harvesters, 1999 through 2004 for the shore-based processors) during which time they had to be in operation catching or processing whiting. In allocating future shares in the fishery, it allows fishers to toss out their poorest two years when requesting a quota.

The idea, said Crawford, is to bring the various benefits of an ITQ system to the large Pacific Whiting fishery. "This kind of quota system has worked in the Alaskan crab fishery," he said. "For one thing, it will give everybody a more level playing field. Beyond that, there are several reasons for doing this."

One is the current fishery is wasteful, over-capitalized and over-intensive. The fishery currently operates as a "derby fishery," with all participants competing against each other to haul up catch before the season ceiling is reached. That pushes the fishermen to catch as much fish as possible at the start of the season - and that has several ill effects, Crawford said. It drives the price of catch down at the season's start and makes the catch more difficult to find later. And it means fishermen have to go out and stay out, whatever the weather and whatever the condition of their boat, if they want to and find and catch the fish.

"Currently, the money in the fleet is poorly used," he said, "the boats fish harder and faster, and the plants do the same. It's better to space it out, not flood the market. Stretching it out, by assuring the harvesters and processors of their share, will allow them to make more rational - and safer - business decisions."

And, Crawford continued, although the whiting fishery "is a clean fishery," reducing the pressure to make the catch as fast as possible should enable a cleaner fishery, with lower bycatch.

Senator Smith, in his letter to council chair Hansen, had a slightly different take on that. "Most recently," he wrote, "the need for such a plan was highlighted by the unexpected change in salmon bycatch patterns that resulted in new restrictions on the whiting fleet."

David Jincks, the director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, told the News-Times his organization strongly supports the legislation. "We're for it," he said. "It'll be good for us, because the whiting is a derby; it does not make sense to continue fishing like that. It's like rationalizing the Pollock and the crab fisheries in the Bering Sea," he said. The change to ITQ systems for those Alaskan fisheries, he said, has been credited with improving them, making them safer and stabilizing prices.

The planned quota shares will be fully transferable, Crawford said. "But you'll need to match the harvester share with the processor share, and in order to fish, you need to make an agreement like that at the start of the season. That will force the harvesters and processors to team up in partnership," he said.

ITQs are opposed by some fishermen, who worry they will lead to a concentrated fishery in which a few big companies own most of the vessels, with the traditional family business approach to fishing becoming a thing of the past. Others say methods can be found to protect the coastal fishing culture while obtaining the benefits of an ITQ system.

Some in the industry oppose the privatization of the resource, and prefer to leave it unallocated, open to anyone who can raise the funds to buy a boat, hire a crew and enter the fishery. But many economists, some fishermen, and at least one large conservation organization (Environmental Defense) argue that ITQs can have big benefits for the industry, the fishers, and for conservation of marine resources.




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