Only those boat owners and processors who could show that they had been commercially active in Alaska's crab industry for a number of consecutive years—four or five years for fishers and three or four years for processors, according to their districts—received IFQs and IPQs.

Defined by the NPFMC as "Eligible Crab Communities" (ECCs), nine communities dependent on crab fishing also received some guarantees that fishers and processors in their communities would receive quotas.

In 2008, the jury is still out on how well the crab-rationalization plan has worked. It certainly led, as expected, to consolidation. The number of boats fishing for crabs fell from 357 to 80, and the number of crew members dropped from roughly 1,500 to just 400.

Conservation is another matter. Whether the crab catch will recover remains in doubt. Several crab-fishery areas have been closed. The TAC for king crabs was lowered 15 percent in 2007 to encourage recovery, and the American catch that year came to only 15.5 million pounds.

The Fishers' Lament

Fishers voiced many concerns as the NPFMC ended open access to Alaska's fisheries. Only established boat owners with ITQs could fish. Many women, who made up about 5 percent of the fishers in Alaska, and Alaskan Natives were left out. These two groups have had a harder time becoming boat owners because they have a more difficult time securing credit. Only a few boat captains and no crew members were guaranteed places in what was a shrinking group of fisheries participants.

These changes caused considerable dissatisfaction, especially in the crab fishery. In mid-2007, the trade journal Seafood Business noted: "In the Alaskan crab fishery, the fleet has been reduced by two-thirds, much to the dismay of Alaskan fishermen and crewmembers who didn't make the cut. The few who did, though, now have plenty of money to hire lobbyists."

Community-development concerns have arisen as well. Rationalization resulted in entire communities—except those nine designated as ECCs—being excluded from crab fishing. An anthropologist who studied the impacts of the crab-rationalization program on communities in the Aleutian Islands concluded, "The findings on direct impacts of crab rationalization on the study communities include loss of crab fishing crew jobs, fewer boats delivering crab, and lower sales for support businesses."

Some fishers were outspoken. "All those boat owners ended up with this quota and it was built by guys like myself; guys that were on deck all those years—they didn't get anything out of it." Another observed, "It was put together by a group of too many special interests which captured the fishery for themselves; it had nothing to do with the people that participated."

In April 2008, Terry Haines—a Kodiak city councilman, former deckhand, and member of Fish Heads, an advocacy group concerned about the impact of rationalization on communities—complained: "In the years since implementation of crab rationalization the council [the NPFMC] has done very little to look back at what happens to towns like Kodiak when you tie up two-thirds of the boats, suck 75 percent of the money out of the paychecks and make the free market illegal."

Even some boat owners who possessed IFQs lamented that their earlier free-and-easy way of life was vanishing, a victim of rationalization. Bart Eaton, a longtime king-crab fisherman, later a vice president of a major seafood processor-wholesaler, asked: "Do we really want a failsafe society? With regulations that tell you whre to fish and when, guys feel more and more like they're spare gear in a big bureaucratic machine."

One captain and boat owner explained in 2008, "We are afraid of becoming hourly salaried workers with the adventure, traditions and romance of crabbing buried under pages of quotas and regulations. We do not want to be part of bureaucracy." He concluded, "The Bering [Sea] then is our last frontier. It is our Wild West, our Lonesome Dove, played out on waves."

Responding to community concerns and to changes in the FCMA, the NPFMC instituted a Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program in 2006-2007, which allocated "a percentage of all Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands quotas for groundfish, prohibited species, halibut, and crab to eligible communities."

Continued questioning led the NPFMC to review its crab-rationalization plan in early 2008. Members considered various ways by which "some community concerns could be alleviated." They recognized, too, that "the benefits received by shareholders [those having IFQs] . . . have been at the expense of crew more than others" and that "the current program lacks mechanism for natural progression of crew in fishery from deck to wheelhouse to vessel ownership."

Meanwhile, the state of Alaska and several private banks implemented programs to help individuals and communities acquire fishing quotas, through the formation of fishing cooperatives, for example. How successful they will be remains to be seen.

The Tale of Two Fisheries

The different fates of the American fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic and Alaska reveal complexities in fishing and over-fishing.

Over-fishing has been most common in the long-established fisheries of the Northwest Atlantic, such as those for cod and blue-fin tuna. The application of industrial fishing methods after the Second World War intensified large-scale fishing that had begun much earlier. Americans and Canadians finished the over-fishing begun by others. The failure of the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council] and international bodies to provide adequate regulation made an already bad situation worse, leading to the near-demise of Atlantic cod and blue-fin tuna as commercial fish stocks.

Farther north in Alaskan waters, regulatory results were mixed, but generally more positive. Crabs suffered from over-fishing, an initial lack of adequate regulation by the NPFMC, and ecological changes. Even with the implementation of a rationalization plan, the future of crab fishing is uncertain. Rationalization plans do seem to have placed fishing for major commercial species of bottom fish on a sustainable basis. Pacific cod are not going the way of their Atlantic cousins.

Alaskan success has been recognized internationally. By mid-2008, the Marine Stewardship Council, a well-respected British environmental body, had certified only twenty-six fisheries around the globe as being conducted in sustainable ways. Impressively, this small list included all Alaskan pollock, salmon, halibut, and sablefish, and most Alaskan cod. The only other American fishery to achieve such status was Oregon pink shrimp.

The different outcomes of New England and Alaska are explained by certain advantages that members of the NPFMC had over their counterparts in the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council]. The Alaskan management council had access to more advanced scientific information—a major reason the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council] failed is that marine science did not always provide it with reliable information. The NPFMC also had generally younger, more adaptable fisheries. It also could learn from the cautionary tale of what had happened to the Northwest Atlantic cod.

From bonanza, open-access industries, in just a generation most of Alaska's fisheries have become among the most highly regulated industries in the United States.

In Alaska, the need for stability and permanence trumped earlier desires for quick gains and big bucks, making most of the state's fisheries sustainable, but also limiting opportunities for some individuals and entire communities. Such trade-offs, it is likely, will become increasingly common in a world of scarce natural resources.


Abbreviations and Acronyms

ECC: eligible crab community

FCMA: Federal Fishery Conservation and Management Act

NEFMC: New England Fishery Management Council

NPFMC: North Pacific Fishery Management Council

IFQ: individual fishing quota

ITQ: individual transferable quota

IPQ: individual processing quota

TAC: total allowable catc