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Villages may buy catch rights
GULF: Supporters see landmark decision; foes call it unfair.

By Wesley Loy
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: April 11, 2002)

Forty-two coastal towns and villages around the Gulf of Alaska would be eligible to buy halibut and black cod catch rights under a new program approved by federal fishery regulators Wednesday.

The program, passed 11-0 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, still needs final approval from the U.S. commerce secretary.

Supporters called it a landmark decision that will increase fishing opportunity in coastal villages that never got their fair share when federal officials doled out valuable individual shares of the halibut and black cod catch to fishermen in 1995.

Opponents, however, said the program is unneeded and would give villages a tax-free advantage over fishermen in buying catch shares. Such shares typically trade on the open market for prices approaching $10 per pound of fish.

Kevin Duffy, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game and a council member, said the program will help coastal villages struggling in the current era of low salmon and herring prices. The program will allow a village to buy halibut and black cod quota and then lease it to a resident of that village to catch.

"It's a great step forward," Duffy said.

Duncan Fields, a Kodiak fisherman and attorney who represents about 30 villages, said the program could be an important means of employing people in villages in jeopardy of disappearing.

"It represents hopes," Fields said. "It represents some opportunity."

If it gains the expected approval from the commerce secretary, the program will cure a couple of problems dating to 1995, he said.

That year, fishermen were allotted individual catch limits of a certain number of pounds based on their seasonal landings over a period of years. Many villagers were concentrating on salmon and herring and were fishing for halibut only on a subsistence level in those years, Fields said. And villagers who did receive individual quotas often got only very small ones of as little as 30 pounds, he said. The result was that many villagers sold these nonviable quotas.

Villages under the new program will be able to try to rebuy significant chunks of quota, Fields said.

The new program would not take away fish from the commercial fleet; rather, it would only give villages the right to buy catch rights.

John Bruce of Seattle-based Jubilee Fisheries Inc., the top-ranking black cod quota owner with nearly 1.2 million pounds at the start of this year, criticized idea as redundant and potentially unfair to commercial fishermen.

Bruce said villagers have plenty of opportunities, through agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Marine Fisheries Service, to buy fishing quota.

"What we've just done is create a whole new bureaucracy," he said. Bruce added that villages, in bidding for quota, will have tax-exempt status and buying power not enjoyed by commercial fishermen.

Also, Bruce and others said they doubt the new program can do much to cure the social problems of villages, including the outmigration of youth.

Fields agreed that the program offers only a "modest opportunity" to help local coastal economies. Under rules approved by the council, each village would be able to buy no more than 245,000 pounds of halibut, enough to sustain only a handful of fishermen and a drop in the bucket compared with the 48 million pounds available overall for commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska this year.

Fields also said opponents overestimate the availability of loans or grants from the BIA and other agencies like the Alaska Commercial Fishing & Agriculture Bank. In many cases, villagers simply can't qualify for loans, he said.

Reporter Wesley Loy can be reached at or 907 257-4590.

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