Boom or bust in Adak? Politics will decide

Adak is 1,200 miles west of Anchorage in the Aleutian Islands in the center of some of Alaska’s last “derby style” fisheries.

Now, a great political struggle between some large Seattle-based corporate fishing companies and this Aleut community will determine whether Adak and it’s value-added approach to seafood development survives or if these valuable Alaska fisheries resources are simply added to the portfolios of the consolidated fishing companies.

These large fishing companies already have exclusive Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fishing privileges with an aggregate value in excess of $2 billion. In contrast, if Adak and Alaska lose this struggle, the community is not likely to survive.

Almost everyone agrees there is an emergency. Without a regulatory or legislative fix by January the local shore-based fleet will start departing the region; markets, jobs and investments will be lost and the collapse of Adak will begin. But a few well-financed companies are working to defeat the fix at every turn.

A brief history

For at least 8,000 years Aleuts relied on Adak for trapping, hunting and fishing, establishing both permanent and later seasonal settlements. This all changed when the U.S. entered World War II when it built both Army and Navy facilities on Adak and terminating any further use by the Aleuts.

At its Cold War peak, Adak was home to more than 6,000 military personnel and their families. In 1997 the military ended its presence on Adak and in 2004 some portions of the island were transferred back to the Aleut Corp.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council rationalized most of the great Bering Sea fisheries (halibut, sablefish, pollock, crab and several species of groundfish), which created world-class sustainable fisheries and gave rise to a consolidated, globally competitive fishing industry.

Because this all happened before portions of Adak were handed back to the Aleut Corp., the community missed out on these programs.

Starting on 2008, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the State of Alaska began developing programs to protect Adak, Atka and the western Aleutian Islands region from the excess capital and fishing power of the newly-created fishing companies.

In 2016 the council approved, and the National Marine Fisheries Service implemented, a new regulation known as Amendment 113. This regulation ensures that communities in the western Aleutian Islands region have some access to Pacific cod as an economic foundation, by designating that a small portion of the Aleutian Islands cod resource be delivered to any shore-based processor operating in the western Aleutian Islands region during a specified period of time.

This is similar to other programs designed to protect other Alaska coastal communities throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s.

Amendment 113 had an immediate, positive impact: attracting a new processor and millions of dollars of investment to Adak, stabilizing the local economy and the school. In response, the Seattle-based companies and their associations (United Catcher Boats, Groundfish Forum, Katie Ann and B&N Fisheries) filed a lawsuit against Amendment 113 in Washington, D.C., District Court; far from Alaska, where their chance of getting a judge with little or no understanding of Alaska fish policy was nearly a sure thing.

Today

By late 2017, the new Adak processor, Golden Harvest Alaska Seafoods, had stabilized the local economy and the school, had invested millions of dollars in processing infrastructure and housing, and developed new Alaska seafood products (fresh and live crab, fresh Pacific cod and halibut fillets; custom package portions for Costco, Whole Foods and other major West Coast retailers).

The development of these markets and products is due in part to the former military airport runway, which allows the local processor to ship fresh and live product using high volume cargo planes and create hundreds of new jobs in Alaska and Washington state.

Then, this March, the D.C. District Court ruled against Amendment 113. In its opinion, “… the Service (NMFS) did not exceed its statutory authority … (but) the Service failed to demonstrate that the amendment satisfied the requisite standards for such regulatory measures…”

The immediate effect was to vacate Amendment 113 and put Adak and the entire western Aleutian Islands region at risk. The long-term effect is to endanger the North Pacific council’s ability to provide protection to Alaska communities, including programs already in place to ensure other Alaska communities have reasonable access to fish in their region.

Seeing the far reaching damage to council authority and the State of Alaska’s efforts to ensure its coastal communities had reasonable access to fish, one of the four original plaintiffs (B&N Fisheries) immediately dropped from the lawsuit and expressed its support for a regulatory or legislative fix to Amendment 113.

The State of Alaska quickly issued a letter expressing the need for “…enactment of federal legislation…” and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council issued a letter to the Department of Justice requesting a court appeal, finding that “…deliveries of Pacific cod to the AI (Aleutian Islands) shoreside processors is vital to the economic health of AI communities.”

As recently as Aug. 1, the Alaska congressional delegation, led by Sen. Dan Sullivan, was working to reimplement Amendment 113 through the federal legislation. This legislation — which is precisely what the state requested — was blocked by at least one of the remaining plaintiffs thorough a Washington state senator.

Given the political discord in Washington, D.C., it will be increasingly difficult to accomplish the fix through legislation.

The Aleut Corp., the City of Adak and a number of other entities (including B&N Fisheries) have also filed an Emergency Rule petition with the Secretary of Commerce to ensure the 2020 season for Adak, which starts in January.

However, the remaining plaintiffs have worked to defeat this approach as well. In response to the court opinion, the council itself is expected to start working on a new regulatory package in October, but that process will take at least three years — perhaps too long for Golden Harvest Alaska Seafoods and its local fleet to survive.

Almost everyone agrees there is an emergency. The North Pacific council — with members from Alaska, Washington state and Oregon — spent more than 10 years developing Amendment 113.

But a few well-capitalized companies are now working hard to defeat the Alaska community protections that it provides.

Without strong political pushback, Adak in particular and the western Aleutian Islands face an economic collapse in the middle of some of Alaska’s most abundant fishing grounds.

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Clem Tillion is a retired commercial fisherman, a former Alaska state legislator and past chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Updated: 
08/14/2019 - 9:00am

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