Fishy stories

Not just the crab is faux—Seattle companies cloak their greed in environmentalismas they fight for more of the Bering Sea action.

LAST WEEK in the King County courthouse, seven Greenpeace activists escaped the net of Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran. They had been charged with obstruction and committing a public nuisance after they dangled from the Aurora Bridge for two days last summer, blocking two large Alaska-bound fishing boats trying to exit Lake Union. A Seattle Municipal Court jury found them innocent, saying there was no law against hanging from the bridge.

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The verdict is likely to lend momentum for Greenpeace’s goal of doing away with the huge factory trawlers that have come to dominate fishing in Alaska.

Twenty-five hundred miles away, a less acrobatic version of the same effort is under way. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has introduced legislation that would banish the big fishing ships, many of which are owned by a large Norwegian company that does business here under the name American Seafoods. Stevens’ bill is aimed at the richest fishing grounds in the country, the Bering Sea, where millions of tons of pollock are swept up every year and turned into fish sticks, filet-o-fish, and faux crab (or surimi). Over the last decade, the Norwegians have come to dominate the pollock fishery with their enormous and highly efficient boats, which capture the fish in giant nets and process them in on-board factories.

American companies that have been struggling to stay alive in the pollock business look to Stevens’ bill to help them out. The American Fisheries Act would require that fishing boats be operated by companies with at least 75 percent American ownership. The act would take perhaps a dozen Norwegian trawlers out of the Bering business (leaving several dozen more still on the high seas).

THE PUGET SOUND AREA would seem to have conflicting loyalties. On the one hand, factory trawlers are mostly based here; their upkeep pumps some $15 million to $20 million into local shipyards every year and employs hundreds of Washington deckhands. On the other hand, most of the beneficiaries of the Stevens bill would also be Seattle-based firms, such as Tyson Seafood and Trident Seafoods, who would see their share of the Alaska catch jump with the elimination of their Norwegian competitors.

The factory trawler fleet has the clear political edge. Their trade association, known as the At-Sea Processors, reacted quickly and secured written opposition to the Stevens bill from a royal flush of public officials, including the head of the Port of Seattle, Mayor Paul Schell, County Executive Ron Sims, Gov. Gary Locke, and Sens. Slade Gorton and Patty Murray—all of whom essentially argued that the bill unfairly targets one sector of the industry and would have a negative impact on the region’s economy.

The American Fisheries Act Coalition, which is made up of Tyson and Trident as well as an association of smaller fishing boat operators is now “playing catch-up,” concedes executive director Brad Jurkovich. But Jurkovich is up against an awfully well-connected opponent. This month, for example, fishing industry representatives were invited to an American Seafoods reception on board a factory trawler in celebration of the new $14.2 million Odyssey maritime museum on the Seattle waterfront. The invitation to tour “one of the world’s most advanced and environmentally efficient” trawlers was signed by Norm Rice; Wes Uhlman; Darlene Madenwald, a consultant with a green background; and Bob Gogerty, the public affairs uber-operator hired last fall by American Seafoods. He contends that these public officials might not have joined the opposition so readily if his group had been around to make its case.

The battle over pollock is a basic greed-fueled dispute, but principles of environmentalism and nationalism are being wielded in ways that complicate the debate. Sen. Stevens and the American Fisheries Act Coalition contend that Bering Sea fish are a US resource that should be harvested by US citizens. Jurkovich says that foreigners have been allowed to fish our waters only when there weren’t enough Americans around to fully exploit the resource. Now, he adds, the Bering Sea grounds are “overcapitalized,” which means that too many boats are chasing the fish.

Jurkovich also complains that American Seafoods has been subsidized by the Norwegian government. “Not only are we giving them access to our resources, we’re letting them do it with a 20 percent advantage.”

Yet the foreign factory trawlers are providing a service that couldn’t be more all-American: supplying fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s. By contrast, the pollock delivered by American vessels to “on-shore” processing plants on the Alaska coast is mostly turned into surimi and exported to Asia. So American restaurants and frozen fish-stick companies, concerned that the Stevens bill would interrupt their supply, have piped up in support of the trawlers.

Opponents of the bill suggest that the “Americanization” argument is a sham. The new law would be a boon to the on-shore processing industry in Alaska, which is mostly owned and run by the Japanese.

IN YET ANOTHER IRONIC TWIST, Republican Stevens links hands with Greenpeace by professing to have environmental worries about factory trawlers. “I have strong concerns about the negative impacts factory trawlers are having on Bering Sea resources,” he says. But most observers don’t see any significant environmental benefit to the Stevens bill, since it does not actually change the total number of fish that are to be swept from the sea; it only changes who gets to do the sweeping. And as an Environmental Defense Fund attorney testified to Stevens’ Senate committee last March, “Fleets of smaller boats are also entirely capable of overfishing.” And the National Fisheries Institute maintains there is “no evidence that large vessels are more of a threat to US fish stocks than smaller vessels.”

Of course, the fish themselves don’t exist in isolation, and there are signs of stress in other parts of the Bering Sea. “Some animals are declining,” says Dr. James Balsinger, head of Alaska research at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. One species of local sea lion has been placed on the endangered species list and Greenpeace has sued the Fisheries Service for ignoring the problem. A scientist who is closely involved with regulating the fishing industry, and who did not want to be named, says that the multimillion-dollar battle over who gets the pollock is just “a waste of time and money. We should be trying to better understand the interaction between species, to make the resource sustainable.” From the environmental point of view, this scientist says, the choice between the trawlers and the rest of the fleet is a wash.

Many environmentalists, as well as the At-Sea Processors Association, support an individual quota system for pollock, which would allocate, a fixed percentage of the total catch to each boat owner in the fleet. This would replace the situation today, where a regional council determines the total allowable catch for the season and the boats then scramble to grab as big a share as they can before the quota runs out. “The root problem isn’t overcapitalization,” says Jim Gilmore, public affairs director for the At-Sea Processors. “It’s the race to catch the fish.” When every company has an assigned percentage, there is no need for everyone to line up on the first day of the season, and everyone would have an interest in promoting the future health of the resource.

But Greenpeace argues that the quota technique is just another means of tightening the grip of rich corporations on the fishing industry, since the individual quotas would be based on a company’s prior catch history. Brad Jurkovich of the American Fisheries Coalition maintains that new approaches like quotas can be explored only “after the overcapitalization is dealt with.” Then he adds, “Congress will never provide guaranteed shares of our own resources to foreign countries. It’s just not done.”

Related Links:

Help save the fish with Greenpeace

Senator Ted Stevens

American Fisheries Act Coalition

Economic Development Council of Seattle

Environmental Defense Fund

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