Pollock fishers butt heads over salmon conservation

Mathematical biologist George Sugihara's "blatant ignorance of economics" threatens to snare even more salmon in the nets of Alaska pollock fishers, said economist Levis Kochin, speaking from his home in Seattle, Washington

Mathematical biologist George Sugihara’s “blatant ignorance of economics” threatens to snare even more salmon in the nets of Alaska pollock fishers, said economist Levis Kochin, speaking from his home in Seattle, Washington.

Kochin and Sugihara actually have a lot in common.

They’re both respected academics, and they’re both tasked with drafting a plan to save chinook populations through economics.

They’re also both convinced the other’s plan is defective.

Kochin’s plan suffers from “fundamental flaws” that allow it to be “manipulated,” said Hao Ye, research assistant for Sugihara.

“Sugihara’s not an economist, and if you look at his plan he says things that are equivalent to a physicist not knowing Newton’s laws of motion,” said Kochin.

“He invents economic incentives without figuring out what the fact of the matter is.”

For decades, Alaska regulators have kept their distance from the pollock industry, freely allowing vessels to haul up thousands of tons of chinook without regulation.

But then the salmon started to disappear.

Salmon-dependent Yup’ik in eastern Alaskan communities now rely on emergency food and fuel aid. The Yukon River has seen salmon stocks drop by more than half in recent years, prompting worried conservationists to call for an outright ban on Yukon River salmon fishing.

Meanwhile, pollock fishers hauled up an unprecedented 120,000 chinook in 2007.

“It caught the attention of Alaska and it also caught the attention of the Yukon, so the industry was under pressure,” said Kochin.

Worried Alaskan regulators immediately discussed the idea of “capping” bycatch at 47,591 salmon. Once the 47,591st chinook flopped onto the deck of a pollock boat, every single vessel of the fishery would be forced back to port.

For pollock vessels forced to cut their season short, the cap would mean millions of dollars of foregone revenue.

The fishery swung into high gear.

At Trident Seafoods, the largest fish harvesting and processing company in North America, legal counsel Joe Plesha began devising a plan that would reduce salmon bycatch through simple economics – rather than through quotas.

You raise the cap to 68,000 salmon per year, and our economic plan will take care of the rest, regulators were told.

Under Plesha’s plan, pollock fishers would first contribute sums of money into a pool, relative to how many pollock they intended to fish.

Then, vessels would compete to see who could catch the least salmon.

By season’s end, the pooled money would be handed out. The boats that caught few salmon would see a windfall, and those that caught a lot would see little. Or nothing.

Levis Kochin, an associate professor at the University of Washington, was brought onboard to hammer out the math.

The Plesha plan promises to spare 30 per cent of chinook from pollock nets, said Kochin.

The plan has an Achilles heel, say those who support Sugihara’s approach.

Each boat is compared to the fishery’s worst performer, so a large vessel could simply pay a small vessel to intentionally catch chinook – improving the relative standing of everyone else in line.

Such backroom dealings would be “illegal,” notes Kochin.

Besides, a fix is already in place, he said.

By calculating bycatch relative to “twice the average rate,” the possibility of one vessel toying with the results is removed.

While the Plesha plan was still in its first draft, United Catcher Boats, a trade organization, recruited Sugihara to draft a competing proposal.

“They wanted to get a plan which would have lower cost to them, even if it resulted in higher bycatches of salmon, so they recruited Sugihara,” said Kochin.

Instead of using money as an incentive, Sugihara proposed assigning each vessel some “credits.” These credits would dictate how much bycatch they would be allowed.

The vessels that didn’t use all their credits (“clean” vessels) could sell the surplus to “dirty” vessels. Clean vessels would be rewarded through increased credits in subsequent years.

The increased credits serve as ‘insurance,’ said Sugihara. The more credits they have on hand, the better prepared they are in the event they accidentally pulling up a net full of salmon.

“Bycatch allocation is only valuable if the limit on bycatch is going to be reached,” said Kochin.

“If the bycatch is low for a couple of years, the whole thing falls apart,” he said.

In good years, when few salmon are caught, the credits would build up and, eventually, become so cheap as to be meaningless.

Also, vessels under the Sugihara plan are discouraged from selling their bycatch credits until near the end of the season – a measure that promotes fishing in the fall.

“In the summer, bycatch is about one-hundredth the level that it is in the fall,” said Kochin.

That could result in dirty vessels, which had exhausted their credits, waiting until September to buy additional fishing credits from clean vessels.

Just as fall begins – and bycatch is most likely – a torrent of dirty vessels would be unleashed onto the pollock fishing grounds.

So the Sugihara plan may do more harm than good, said Kochin.

“It’s possible, once appraised of the difficulties within his plan, that he would fix them, and that he would come up with a plan that would resemble the one that Plesha devised,” he said.

An incentive plan, be it Plesha or Sugihara’s, is particularly valuable when salmon populations are low – and most vulnerable.

Unlike a cap, vessels are motivated to reduce bycatch even when overall salmon encounters are low, because they are ultimately judged against the bycatch of other vessels.

Competition can become so fierce, that in years of salmon scarcity, a single bycaught salmon can mean a loss of up to $4,000, according to the Plesha plan.

Ultimately, each plan is structured on the basic – and disquieting – premise that the salmon bycatch never had to be as high as it has been.

Certain areas of the pollock fishing grounds are known to be less frequented by salmon.

Obviously, choice of fishing season matters.

Vessels can also purchase a $6,000 device that allows salmon to escape from cod nets.

Skillfully wielded by an experienced captain, excluder devices can reduce salmon bycatch by 20 per cent, reports the Plesha plan.

Developing proper incentive plans to protect chinook may ultimately rely on the harsh criticisms offered by the Sugihara and Plesha camps.

“The more public and transparent these plans are made, and the more they come under review by both sides, then we can better make sure that we are covering all the weaknesses,” said Hao.

Industry officials maintain that there is no “competition” between plans.

“Options are always a good thing, it makes people think and it makes for good incentive plans,” said John Gruver, an employee with United Catcher Boats.

Running the Sugihara and Plesha plans side by side would be a “bad thing,” said Ye.

“All the vessels that have no real intention of reducing bycatch could be a part of one plan, and then they would only compete among each other,” said Ye.

In April, Alaska’s North Pacific Fisheries Management Council will meet to see whether they can trust the incentive plans enough to raise the cap from 47,591 to 68,000.

“We need to figure out how salmon-dependent folks in western Alaska can live with what goes on in the pollock fishery, and the pollock fishery can do the most that it can for western Alaska salmon fishermen,” said Gruver.

Contact Tristin Hopper at