Clean Fishing

Conservationists say the North Pacific fishery should be cleaned up before there is any move to divvy up the resource among fishing companies. They are concerned that, under the proposed share system, the size of the harvests would still be driven by corporate goals. And they contend that if maximizing profits is the primary goal, then broader concerns for protecting fish stocks and declining populations of marine mammals and seabirds will take a backseat.

Proposals are now under discussion which would reshape the harvest to favor fishermen who are careful to avoid waste.

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In April, Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens introduced a bill in Congress that would give harvest preference to clean fishermen and levy penalties against those who catch and dump a lot of unwanted fish. The bill also would require fishermen to process everything they catch (excepting species not legally in season or reserved for other gear groups) by the year 2000.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is also moving in this direction. In April, the council voted to consider a plan that would force fishermen to process as much as 90 percent of their legal catch into food for human consumption. And when it came time to divide up the harvest into private shares, the cleanest fishermen would be vested with extra shares.

Within the trawl industry, some operators are already working to reduce waste. George Coughlin, skipper of the factory trawler Northern Hawk, uses sophisticated machinery to process everything from squid to cod. He sends leftovers to a plant that churns out fish meal and oil for boilers. The Northern Hawk, owned by Oceantrawl Inc., fishes in an Alaskan Community Development Quota fishery. The quota-based experiment is a model for advocates of a share plan and has shown some promise in reducing waste.

But conservation groups remain wary of privatizing a public resource through share plans. The biggest experiment with a share system to date has had some big problems. A Greenpeace-contracted study of the share plan in place in New Zealand since 1986 found that it hadn't kept fish stocks from declining and had further concentrated economic power, with three companies now controlling more than 50 percent of the quota. The New Zealand harvests have also become increasingly difficult to enforce, with some operators developing fraudulent accounting systems to take more than their share of the quotas.

"Rock lobster fisheries have been hit so severely by overfishing and poaching that quota holders are desperately seeking other ways of preventing further depletion of their fisheries," the report concluded.

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