Friday, February 19, 2010

An Open Letter to Eric Schwaab, National Marine Fisheries Service

Dear Mr. Schwaab,

Welcome to the arena. The fans are in the stands and the various challengers await you as the point man gladiator fighting for the future of American fisheries. The walls surrounding the arena contain the trap doors holding your challengers.

  • Out of the NE trap swaggers the tiger of resource depletion and unlimited capacity.
  • Out of the SE trap springs the lion of commercial and sport conflict.
  • Out of the S trap rushes the crocodile of habitat destruction.
  • Out of the SW trap lunges the cyclops of exponential development.
  • And out of the NW trap lumbers the great bear of gargantuan capacity and wasteful practices.

All these challengers, Mr. Schwaab, have a limitless appetite for a limited resource. They are myopic, savage, and self centered. They are concerned primarily with the moment; they lust for getting theirs now. Though I gave them individual personalities they share most of their characteristics with one another. I know them because I am a commercial fisherman too. They are both my friends and my foes. In their shortsighted pursuit of wealth now, the worst of them doom the very life they love. So in order to save them from themselves you must control them. Not crush them but bend them to your will and the will of law.

My area of concern, because I live here, is the Gulf of Alaska

The Ocean Conservancy gave the the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council an A grade in 2008. Shame on them! They don't know what they are doing. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has only one thing going for it...the resources in the North Pacific and Bering Sea were very abundant to start with and not enough time has gone by to extinguish them, as has happened in the Atlantic. The NPFMC has potential. But the members of that body are, for the most part, wholly owned and operated by large commerical fishing and fish processing corporations whose financial well being is dependent upon fisheries resource extraction at the highest possible rate and for the lowest possible cost. Many of those interests are foreign owned. They have little concern over the long term consequences of their actions. Of our greatest concern, the trawl fisheries in the North Pacific are conducted like a war on fish. They are apportioned a huge amount of Prohibited Species Catch, and then are not observed in the taking of that catch. In catching their targeted species they are allowed (to continue the war analogy) to bomb, pillage, loot, and destroy the the benthic habitat and non-target species found there. Just because they are not observed doesn't mean it isn't happening. The observer program is broken and has been since day one. The smoke and mirrors public relations used by the trawlers is very sophisticated. They hire their own data firm, propaganda wing, and political organizers who can be seen handing out trawler data to the NPFMC like it was truth. When combined with their processor allies and compromised politicos, they generally get their way with the Council process.

For instance, each year in the Gulf of Alaska, the trawlers legally waste 2000 metric tons of halibut PSC worth at least $13 million dollars so they can conduct their fisheries. This is only their reported PSC of halibut. There is little doubt among the fleet that the actual waste is far higher, perhaps twice as high or more than is reported. Without observers, or with seasick observers, no one knows for sure. Meanwhile the central gulf ITQ halibut fleet suffers reduced quotas, downstream American and Canadian ITQ halibut fishermen suffer huge reductions in quotas, charter boats suffer reductions of catch and clients, and in general the resource diminishes every year. That is the way king crab went.

For crab in the Gulf of Alaska, the story is basically the same. With bobbin or roller gear the crab are crushed to pieces, no observable data surfaces if there happens to be a conscious observer aboard. Except in rare cases, as the one we published here, where fishing crew were so disgusted by the wanton waste they took pictures; otherwise, the damage is never accounted for. King crab around Kodiak built the larger vessel fleet. King crab capitalised many of today's bigger players. King crab is nearly extinct now. It should be listed as endangered. The more abundant tanner crab, have shown some sign of comeback, but the trawlers, unless controlled, will be the end of them as well. Trawls hit them in the nurseries, in the breeding pods, and on the feeding grounds.

So called pelagic (midwater) trawl gear, when not getting ripped up on lost or fishing crab pots hard on the bottom, is killing off uncounted numbers of Chinook salmon. On Kodiak Island, chinook salmon are in such low numbers the famous Karluk and Aiakulik Rivers have failed in their escapement goals and have been closed. Stories circulate the dock gossip about huge catches of chinooks off Spruce Island and off the west side of Kodiak in the Shelikof Strait. No data observed, low observer coverage, never happened? Help, sir, we need your help. Raise your righteous sword. The Bering Sea lost chum and chinooks are starving the subsistence users of the coasts and rivers. Trawlers after pollock are blamed. Too big, too rich, too influential to be reined in.

So Mr. Schwaab, we are counting on you, in your gladiator incarnation, to be a fair and square guy and to fight like hell for the fisheries. Or if it is the NMFS's intent to destroy the crab stocks and the halibut stocks and the benthic environment so a few trawlers can reap huge profits on a foundation of waste, please just tell us so. In either case, come on and hit us with the truth. But if you are up for a fight to save the Alaskan fisheries...let us help you with that too.

Finally, as to the drum roll for privatization of the fishery resources as heard from your boss, Dr. Lubchenco, and perhaps well meaning green groups, remember: ITQs etc., are only tools. Unless they are very carefully designed, they will not stop waste, benthic destruction, and resource degradation. Dangerously, however, they do promote consolidation of ownership of the resources for corporate interests who by law are charged with making profits for shareholders, not with resource management or protection. The history of ITQs has shown that they give preference to well capitaled entities, non-local ownership, result in share cropping, high rents, and the high grading of fish. They negate new entry by younger fishermen, resulting in the graying of the fleet and the disintegration of fishing dependent families and their coastal communities. ITQs are no panacea for conservation of the resources at all, regardless of the spin various nonfishing groups have given them. As in so many cases of external do-gooder interference in the affairs of others, "We'll save them even if it kills them."

With all due respect sir, keep your flippers wet.

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