- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Depletion of the fish in our coastal oceans is a growing environmental concern, and the state of Alaska is poised to help correct the problem. But Alaska’s senior senator, Ted Stevens, Republican, won’t let it happen without attaching some expensive strings.

Mr. Stevens is backing individual fishing quotas (IFQs) for Alaskan crabbers. That’s good policy. But he insists on a provision requiring crabbers to sell 90 percent of their catch to a small group of established processors. That’s bad policy. To accomplish this, he has attached a rider to an omnibus appropriations bill, which the House and Senate must vote on by Jan. 31.

Alaskan crab fishers participate in one of the most dangerous fisheries in the world. Loss of life is not uncommon. Part of the reason crabbing is so dangerous is that the seasons are incredibly short — only four to six days long in the winter — when winds are high, water is turbulent, and decks are icy.

Regulation has not ended the race that occurs when fishers depend for their livelihood on unowned resources like ocean fish and shellfish. IFQs could solve this problem. IFQs would give crab fishers a right to a specific portion of the total allowable catch set for Alaska crabs each year.

With IFQs, each crabber would know how much he or she is allowed to catch each season. Assured of such a quota, fishers would not be forced into the destructive “race to fish.” Fishing management councils could extend the seasons, fishing would be safer, the quality of the seafood would go up (fishers would have time to protect the quality), and fresh crab would reach the consumer more often.

But there’s the rub — fresh crab. Mr. Stevens wants to protect the companies that process fish. Under the current regulatory regime, with its short, intense seasons, these processors invested in additional plant capacity such as extra freezer space. If IFQs are implemented and seasons extended, some of this processing and storage capacity will probably not be needed. Also, processors will also have less control over prices, because fishers will be able to choose when they want to fish.

Mr. Stevens is trying to create a package for crab fisheries that holds IFQs hostage to benefits for processors. His rider, which would give crabbers IFQs only if they deliver 90 percent of their catch to a handful of processors, has drawn protests from the Bush administration and Senate colleagues. Even the Justice Department has suggested it would not stand up under antitrust law. Fellow Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona (and Olympia Snowe of Maine have also criticized Mr. Stevens for attaching a precedent-setting policy issue to an appropriations bill.

Processors deserve sympathy because they were steered by flawed government policy to invest in redundant capacity. But forcing crabbers to take their catch to a specific processor will hurt their chances of receiving a competitive price. It could also derail the effort, supported by free marketers and environmental activists alike, to implement IFQs elsewhere.

Surely better options — like a stranded capital buyout program or simply including processors in the allocation of the individual fishing quotas — exist for compensating processors.

Alaska’s halibut fishery has already shown the benefits of IFQs. In the early 1990s, halibut fishermen were limited to fishing during just three 24-hour fishing openings a year. Catching halibut was dangerous, profits were low, and most of the catch had to be frozen.

When IFQs were adopted in 1995, the season was expanded to 245 days. Fishing became more profitable and safer. Fisheries in New Zealand, Iceland, Australia and Canada also show that IFQs improve fish management, reduce danger and improve product quality.

Congress should not let the processors’ difficulties stand in the way of a solution to a problem that is hurting marine resources around the world. Don’t let Sen. Stevens’ rider remain.

Donald R. Leal is a senior associate of PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman, Mont. PERC is dedicated to improving environmental quality through markets.

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