Adak stakeholders protest denial of proposed cod allocation

Stakeholders of an isolated Aleutians fish plant contend state appointees on the federal fisheries management board have ignored calls for help to keep more of the area’s large Pacific cod catch in Alaska despite a court order that shot down the first attempt to do so.

Representatives from Aleut Corp., which owns the fish processing plant in Adak through a subsidiary, and Peter Pan Seafood Co., have said they need to be able to rely on a foundational allocation of cod from federal fisheries to reopen the currently shuttered plant.

It’s believed a reliable allocation of roughly 5,000 metric tons of Pacific cod to the plants in Adak and Atka, where a plant is also currently closed, would provide a base volume of fish that would allow an operator to keep it open year-round with purchases in the state waters cod and other fisheries throughout the year.

Doing so could provide the ultra-remote community of approximately 300 residents with nearly 200 jobs during peak activity and several dozen steady positions if the plant were operated year-round, they estimate.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council that oversees the largely Seattle-based trawl cod fishery is in the process of reforming those allocations amidst other regulatory changes.

Of the 11 voting council members, six are appointed by Alaska’s governor, in theory giving the state bloc control over council decisions and the business interests as well; those with more personal ties to the former Naval base community are wondering why, as they put it, the administration is not supporting the interests of a rural Alaska community over the trawl industry.

Peter Pan Executive Vice President Jon Hickman wrote in public comments submitted prior to the council’s mid-June meeting that the company supports a harvest split with up to 30 percent of the qualifying shares going to eligible processors, contending that it would create a competitive, but not exclusive, market for the cod. For Peter Pan, it would likely provide the market stability the company needs to make investments in value-added cod products at Adak, according to Hickman.

Peter Pan’s message on the issue was backed by the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, which feels a dedicated shore-side allocation recognizes the investments made in the fishery and the changes that have occurred due to rationalization and other factors, according to testimony from PSPA President Chris Barrows.

Excess floating processing capacity left over after the rationalization starting in the mid-2000s of crab and other Bering Sea fisheries was moved south to participate in the federal Aleutians cod fishery among others, which challenged the community of Adak after the first time the plant closed in 2009, according to Adak Community Development Corp. board member Dave Fraser.

“All that excess capacity flowed out into the Aleutians and shortened the seasons,” Fraser said.

That 5,000 metric-ton mark is what was set aside by the council in 2016 under what is known as Amendment 113 for shore-based plants from the area’s federal Pacific cod fishery for several years as a means to direct resources to the communities that would otherwise be sent to floating processors. It was the council’s response to mitigate the impacts of its prior actions in other Bering Sea fisheries on Adak and other Aleutian communities.

Offloading at shore side facilities means the large catcher vessels must pay the 3 percent state fish landing tax and adds other expenses to their operation.

So in turn, several Seattle-based trawl industry groups and vessel owner companies sued the council in late 2016 in an attempt to have Amendment 113 overturned. They argued in part that the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not give the council the authority to allocate harvest to shore-based processers and that the council did not provide a rational explanation for the regulatory change, thus violating the Administrative Procedures Act that is at the core of many federal regulatory disputes.

D.C. Federal District Court Judge Timothy J. Kelly sided with the trawl coalition in a March 2019 order in which he concluded the harvest set-aside for a pair of plants — but practically just Adak — violated national standards under the MSA that prohibit the council from discriminating between residents of different states in allocation issues.

Sen. Dan Sullivan subsequently attached a rider to the 2019 Coast Guard reauthorization bill that largely would have made Amendment 113 law and bypassed the council; however, Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell gathered opposition sufficient to prevent Sullivan’s amendment from getting the requisite 60 votes on the Senate floor.

According to data submitted by Peter Pan to the council prior to its recent June meeting, cod deliveries from the federal trawl catch to Adak in 2018 and 2019 when Amendment 113 was in effect accounted for 12 to 13 percent of the total Bering Sea and Aleutians trawl cod allocation.

Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, one of the plaintiffs in the Amendment 113 suit, wrote to the council that the group believes the concept of allocating harvest shares to processors is meant to provide stability in the catcher-processor relationship and a new catch-share program should strengthen that relationship, not weaken it.

United Catcher Boats supported a processor allocation range of 10 to 20 percent in June when the council was deliberating its preliminary preferred alternative on the matter, versus Peter Pan’s 30 percent request.

“By narrowing the range the council will help the public focus its attention on a fair and reasonable allocation percentage at this time,” Paine wrote in reference to the national fisheries standard requirements.

Peter Pan Business Development Manager Steve Minor said in testimony after the council selected a preliminary alternative that would allocate about 2,000 metric tons of cod per year to Adak that the company is suspending its work to restart the Adak plant as a result of the decision.

“There are many problems associated with this (preliminary preferred alternative), but let me close by saying that by selecting this PPA, the council ignored the unanimous agreement between all of the major Adak stakeholders about the most reasonable option to restore Adak’s economy,” he said.

According to a written statement from Peter Pan after the council’s preliminary Adak decision, which was approved 10-1 as part of a broader regulatory package, there is a significant amount of work that needs to be done to the plant before it can be operated consistently.

“Adak’s economic future, its school and small businesses are all tied to the success of the seafood plant, and we hope that the council ultimately supports the Adak community and the harvesters that helped pioneer this remote fishery,” Peter Pan’s statement reads.

Council members who responded to questions from the Journal said the council rejected the allocation proposal because it would have allowed the fish to be transferred to other communities, such as King Cove or Unalaska, where Peter Pan and others have active facilities, and required a cash payment to Adak instead of generating real economic activity in the community, which state officials wanted to preserve.

Officials in the Governor’s Office and the Department of Fish and Game did not respond to questions and interview requests for this story.

They also said the 5,000-ton “set aside” for one group is far too much considering the annual total allowable catch, or TAC, for Pacific cod is in steep decline. It would create a situation where one user is provided a fixed quantity of a resource, with the rest are subjected to the swings in abundance.

Adak Community Development Corp.’s Fraser said he hopes the council can come up with a way to support Adak’s economy that will get broader buy-in from stakeholders before finalizing the allocations; the council’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 11-16.

If the plant remains closed, regardless of the reason, it’s likely the school will close, which would be another major blow to the community, he said. Adak’s economy shrunk rapidly after the first time the plant closed for two years starting in 2009, according to Fraser.

“Each time that happens, that somebody opens and then closes the plant again you lose more and more people out of the community and the ability to maintain a small business in Adak is reduced,” he said. “It is literally a matter of life and death for the community to have access on a sustainable basis to the resources that are right on its doorstep.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/21/2021 - 10:18am