By Laine Welch
January 14, 2008
When quota share programs were implemented in Alaska's halibut, sablefish and Bering Sea crab fisheries, they included a federal loan program designed to let disenfranchised deckhands and skippers buy in. The direct loans are funded by a portion of the fees paid by fishermen to cover management and enforcement costs, which are based on their annual catches.
Since 1995 eligible entry level and small boat halibut and sablefish harvesters have availed themselves of the opportunity, which lets them finance up to 80 percent of the cost of purchasing quota shares over 25 years at a fixed, low interest rate.
"The funding has been set at $5 million a year for the life of the program, and we've committed that full amount each year. So it has been a popular program," said Leo Erwin, director of Financial Services for NOAA Fisheries.
But Bering Sea crabbers have been on hold for the loans since their quota share program hit the water in 2005. So what's the hold up?
'This is the first year there has been an appropriation to authorize the loan program," Erwin explained.
Congress has budgeted $3 million to be used for the so called Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Financing Program. That means the feds can begin writing the rules to really get things moving.
"We're moving ahead on publishing and implementing regulations," Erwin said. "It's a multi-step process. At this point we're hoping to get the first step done, which is the proposed rule, probably in late winter or early spring. We're looking forward to hearing from the public and getting the program up and running, most likely sometime next year," Erwin said.
"People should keep an eye out for the proposed rule so that we can get as many comments as possible and incorporate those considerations into the final rule," said Chief Financial Officer Gary Reisner.
Neither would estimate how much the additional money might generate in crew loans.
"We need to get some experience in the program, and I don't have a good understanding of what the market is for crab quota. So it is pretty hard to speculate," Erwin said.
One thing is certain - the
quota shares will be pricey. Latest prices peg red king crab
quota at $28-$30 a pound for the most prime fishing districts,
said Jeff Osborn at Dock Street Brokers. Snow crab is in the
$10 range, Tanner crab is priced closer to $12 per pound and
golden king crab is listed at $7.50-$12 per pound. Osborn said
future catch limits, grounds prices and uncertain political developments
will dictate the ups and downs in the Bering Sea crab quota
When Congress gets back to work later this month a committee will align House and Senate versions of the $286 billion Farm Bill. Fishermen want to make sure the final bill includes tax relief from any Exxon oil spill pay outs and first time access to operational loans.
Senator Lisa Murkowski championed the Exxon Valdez Tax Treatment as an amendment to the Farm Bill, which would allow income averaging and one time retirement contributions for those receiving punitive damage awards. Senator Ted Stevens is credited with getting the door opened to fishermen to be included in the Farm Bill's operational loan program. Similar to other food producers, it would allow fishermen to borrow up to $300,000 in low interest loans from the USDA's Farm Service Agency.
"The Farm Bill right now includes U.S. fish farmers but it does not include fishermen. So it's very important that wild harvesters pay attention and stay involved in this process," said Joe Childers, president of United Fishermen of Alaska.
Wild fish was included in the original Farm Bill in the 1930's, said Bruce Schactler, a fishery specialist with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "But a change in definitions about 40 years ago has worked against fishermen ever since."
"They defined fish as 'an aquatic gilled animal that is produced in a controlled environment.' So farmed fish is considered a farm product that is eligible for USDA programs. But wild fish are not. That is the wrong that Senator Stevens has been trying to correct," Schactler added.
"We want to keep up the pressure on policy makers," echoed Childers, "but it is just as important to elevate the awareness that we are very significant food producers and we are not involved in the U.S. Farm Bill at all."
President Bush has threatened
to veto the Farm Bill, calling it "too spendy." Get
more information on the US Farm Bill and Congressional contact
lists from UFA in Juneau.
Fishermen will find out how this week how much halibut they'll be able to harvest this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission is meeting in Portland, Oregon and will decide on catch limits for fisheries in California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and British Columbia.
Managers are recommending an Alaska catch of 50 million pounds, a drop of two million pounds from last year. Southeast Alaska fishermen are bracing for a 27 percent cut to their halibut catches to just six million pounds. The IPHC also will consider several management changes, including a request to set the opening date on the first Saturday in March at least for the next three years. The halibut season runs through mid-November.
Get more information at www.iphc.washington.edu .
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]alaska.com
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