Oct. 13, 2006 – Steve Branson, a fisherman in Alaska, counted on the income he made during crab season to help pay off his mortgage and care for his four kids.
But in 2005, after fishing the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for 20 years, Branson was told he could no longer go crabbing there. Under a new crab-management program, the federal government handed fishing rights to a select group of people, while closing off the industry to hundreds of individual fishermen.
The program, called "crab rationalization," effectively privatized a once-public resource by granting certain individuals and corporations exclusive crab quotas â€“ how much crab they can harvest each year. Grantees received the prerogative to either catch the crab themselves, join a cooperative to pool quotas, or lease or sell their quotas to the highest bidder. Additionally, a handful of major processing companies gained exclusive buying rights to nearly all of crab brought to shore.
Corporations that were granted fishing and processing quotas include Trident Seafoods, UniSea, Westward Seafoods and Peter Pan Seafoods.
"Before [the crab are] even caught, [quota holders] own the rights to the crab crawling on the bottom of the sea floor," Branson explained to The NewStandard.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council â€“ one of eight regional councils that oversee the nationâ€™s fisheries under the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) â€“ developed the program and submitted it for congressional approval. Lawmakers approved the plan in 2004.
â€œBefore [the crab are] even caught, [quota holders] own the rights to the crab crawling on the bottom of the sea floor.â€
All but 3 percent of crab quotas were granted to companies and vessel owners based on how much crab they have caught in the past. The Council divided the remaining quotas among captains and crew using the same criteria, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration â€“ NMFSâ€™s parent agency â€“ acknowledged that due to additional rules, crew members would likely be left without quotas. In other words, most individual fishermen would not be allowed to fish for crab on their own, and many would find themselves squeezed out of jobs working for other people.
Proponents of crab rationalization say the program reduces overfishing, creates safer working conditions, and produces a more-efficient industry.
The Bering Sea is currently at risk of overfishing. Already, commercial fish stocks have declined and fisheries in Alaska have closed. During the 1970s, red king crab was the "crown jewel" in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in the words of a 2005 report by the NMFS. By 1983, the crab population experienced "one of the most spectacular crashes in US history." More than 20 years later, with red king crab still subject to commercial fishing, the report concluded that the species had not recovered.
In 1999, NMFS deemed opilio crab in the Sea were overfished, and NMFS labeled blue king crab overfished in 2002.
In a matter of months after rationalization, the number of crabbing boats was consolidated, and an estimated 757 jobs during the red king crab season were lost, and 457 jobs during the Bering Sea snow crab season were lost.
But critics say privatizing the crab industry has only consolidated fishing rights in the hands of a few, destroyed livelihoods and put at risk the marine ecosystem it was set up to protect. Additionally, they say at least one of the programâ€™s creators had industry ties.
Out of Work
Before 2005, fishing for crab in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands was an all-out race. Called "derby-style" fishing, licensed boats battled to pull as much crab as possible on deck. Crews would fish in dangerous weather conditions; as a result, crabbing is renowned as extremely perilous. When the yearâ€™s harvest limit was met, often in a matter of days, the season was over.
"If I wanted to go risk my ass, I could take a boat out there and divvy up the proceeds" among the crew, Branson said.
In 2001, 232 vessels caught 7.8 million pounds of red king crab in just three days and eight hours, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Because it was difficult to determine when the harvest level had been met during the frenzy, an additional 1.2 million crab was brought to shore over the 6.6 million harvest level limit.
The crabbing industry was lucrative, but it was dangerous, environmentally wasteful and economically bloated, prompting the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to find an alternative way to manage crab fishing.
Citing "too many boats after too few fish," Chris Oliver, executive director of the Council, told TNS crab rationalization was the optimal solution.
In a matter of months after rationalization, the number of crabbing boats was consolidated, and an estimated 757 jobs during the red king crab season were lost, and 457 jobs during the Bering Sea snow crab season were lost, according to an economic analysis of crab rationalization conducted by the University of Alaskaâ€“Anchorage.
â€œHas rationalization helped the fish stock? [Crab rationalization] is actually more destructive to the environment because of the practice of high-grading.â€
The same study found that in the coastal town of Kodiak, where Branson resides, the number of boats fishing for red king crab fell by about 57 percent.
Oliver readily acknowledged the program was designed to consolidate the number of people involved in crabbing. "We donâ€™t deny that thereâ€™s been a lot of impact in terms of people losing their crew jobs," he told TNS. "In fact, some of the remaining jobs are more-long-term jobs, rather than a one- or two-week sprint. I know [short-term arrangements were] important to a lot of people, but certainly only a proportion of their annual income. So thereâ€™s a trade-off."
But Shawn Dochtermann, a crabber in Kodiak, said fishermen who have managed to retain their jobs are working for "peanuts."
Prior to rationalization, captains and crew were generally paid a share of net earnings after deducting taxes and the costs of fuel, bait and food. While the share system is still in place under rationalization, the program has added an additional expense â€“ one that is making it difficult to earn a profit. To make crabbing worthwhile, many vessels were forced to lease additional crab quotas from other vessels.
In 2005, the lease rates were extremely high â€“ 50 to 70 percent of harvest earnings, according to the University of Alaska study. The report also estimated that after this expense was deducted from the net earnings, and a share trickled down to the fishermen, they generally were earning less money per hour under rationalization, although many who kept work were employed for longer periods and may have been netting a higher gross pay per season.
In Kodiak, the University of Alaska study found crab rationalization "probably" reduced the total earnings of residents working in the king-crab fishing industry by between $1 million and $1.6 million over one year.
Alaskan residents, like those in King Cove and Kodiak, say crab rationalization has had a devastating impact on coastal communities, which are reeling from the lack of crab fishing jobs and a decrease in the number of customers the industry used to bring into their towns. Though economist Gunnar Knapp, author of the study, warned that there is not enough information to measure the economic effects of rationalization "with any great degree of precision," Knapp said most businesses in fishing communities are seeing a reduction in spending.
"As the income goes out of the community for those businesses and fishing jobs, there's a proportional reduction in those economies â€“ people who operate laundry mats, or fisherman bars, or hotels," Knapp told TNS.
Some of crab rationalizationâ€™s biggest winners had direct ties with a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which helped spearhead crab rationalization. Stephanie Madsen, who chairs the Council, is also the vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association, a trade group that counts among its members Peter Pan Seafoods, UniSea and several other corporations that wound up with crab quotas.
Branson said the resentment toward quota holders is growing. "[The bitterness] is really bad," he said.
Branson also resents that quotas were given to so few individual fishermen, many of whom have logged years, or even decades, in the risky and difficult industry. Had he been given a quota, he said he could have used it to negotiate a better-paying crew job.
"I could have said, â€˜If you want to fish my quota, you have to give me a bigger share of the earnings," Branson said. "Or I could have sold the quota and used the money to get out of this industry, buy myself a new business and get myself retrained."
Degradation and Danger Still Present
Rationalization extended the crab season by several months, depending on the crab type, ostensibly to stop overfishing and to ensure fishermenâ€™s safety.
But Andrianna Natsoulas, coordinator of the marine campaign for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said the scheme has not led to a more-sustainable ecosystem. Rationalization has sparked an increase in high-grading â€“ the practice of discarding legally retainable but lower-valued crab. "They throw the other crab overboard dead and dying," Natsoulas said. "Fishermen want to get the most money out of their quota."
Since each crab a quota-holder brings in counts toward that limit, "the most valuable ones are going to be kept, and those which are less valuable are going to be thrown away," Natsoulas explained.
Last year, fishermen threw an estimated 677,000 legal male red king crabs overboard, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Before rationalization, the highest amount of red king crab that was discarded between 1999 and 2004 was 80,000 in 2002.
According to an Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the NOAA, fishery managers estimate that 25 percent of discarded crabs die from handling.
George Pletnikoff, Alaska oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, agreed. "Has rationalization helped the fish stock? [Crab rationalization] is actually more destructive to the environment because of the practice of high-grading," he told TNS.
Pletnikoff also questioned rationalizationâ€™s overfishing argument, given the same â€“ or even higher â€“ levels of crab are allowed to be caught under the program. "So how does this provide for the health of the environment or for the [fish stock]?" he said.
Beyond ecological concerns, Natsoulas said rationalization has done little to decrease the dangers of crabbing. Crab-processing quota-holders are guaranteed 90 percent of crab deliveries under the new program. She warned that because crab purchasing power is consolidated in the hands of a few processors, those processors can dictate when they will buy the crab. In other words, processors could have the ability to drive ships out to sea when the weather is bad, but the price of crab is high, such as around Christmas time.
Oliver defended the Councilâ€™s program from such charges, arguing that a market-sensitive profit motive would not dictate when processors demand crab. "This isnâ€™t a situation where processors can just willy-nilly send fishermen out whenever they want. And theyâ€™re not going to send boats out in weather when they think the crab and the fishermen arenâ€™t going to come back safely."
Words of Warning
As the rest of the country is beginning to tackle ocean conservation issues, several places are eyeing programs like rationalization. Currently, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is developing a quota program for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Council is planning to privatize red-snapper fisheries.
But local fisherman in Alaska are not letting further privatization occur without a fight, nor without offering words of warning to the rest of the country.
Two years ago, Branson co-founded the Crewmanâ€™s Association, a nonprofit organization of dissatisfied fishermen who oppose rationalization. Along with attending Council meetings and writing letters to Council members and lawmakers, the Association organizes a yearly protest.
"Weâ€™re all stepping up and saying â€˜no more rationalization,â€™" Kodiak crabber Dochtermann said. "Weâ€™re making it very clear to the Council that we donâ€™t want any more of this, and they should be fixing the problems that they created."
He continued, "We were told this is just the nature of the beast. Well, the beast is here with us, and weâ€™re trying to kill it, because thatâ€™s what rationalization is."