By Steve Minor
For The Cordova Times
Last year we warned of the slow economic death of Alaskan fishing communities as their access to nearby fisheries that they depend on becomes squeezed by offshore interests, lawsuits and slow or non-existent political and regulatory responses.
The first casualty came sooner than expected. In this case, a lawsuit by several offshore corporate fishing interests has stripped the western Aleutian communities of Adak and Atka of their access to federal waters Pacific cod and doomed the only seafood processing plant in Adak. Golden Harvest Alaska Seafoods had invested millions of dollars in new equipment, product and market development based on a 5,000 metric tons (11 million pound) Pacific cod federal waters set-aside developed over a nearly 10-year period by the North Pacific Council; the loss of that fishery lead to the inevitable failure of the plant and the collapse of the Adak economy, as predicted by industry stakeholders throughout 2019 and early 2020.
This past June Adak’s city manager, Layton Lockett, announced that the Golden Harvest Alaska Seafoods operation had stopped buying fish and their crews had been sent home. In addition to Pacific cod, the plant had been processing crab, halibut and sablefish, and taking advantage of Adak’s military-built airport to fly live and fresh fish and custom processed seafood to US west coast markets. Some of those markets will now be supplied with foreign-produced seafood.
The Adak plant was the only major business on the island. During the high season, Golden Harvest employed 300 people; and 80 employees year-round, which stabilized the local economy and school. In addition to the local fishery taxes which it contributed to state and municipal coffers, the plant supported a number of small businesses, shipped 450 ocean freight containers of seafood per year, and helped sustain Alaska Airlines’ operations to and from the remote island — filling air freighters and passenger planes with fresh and frozen seafood. The plant was also in the process of developing new fisheries: sea urchins, geoducks, kelp and salmon; and was exploring the potential for a salmon hatchery to provide more stable year-round employment.
Ironically, Adak and the western Aleutians are located amidst some of the nation’s richest fisheries, which is what this fight was all about. Adak’s enviable location, its proximity to seafood markets in Asia and its military-built airport runway, harbor and other infrastructure provide Alaska with a globally competitive opportunity. Former Sen. Ted Stevens, a champion of Alaska’s fishing communities and one of the driving forces behind the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act, secured a congressionally mandated pollock allocation for Adak as part of the decades long effort to develop the opportunity. Stiff opposition by offshore interests have now put those capital and political investments in peril.
Since at least 2008, the State of Alaska and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had committed to protecting the Western Aleutians region’s access to federal waters Pacific cod. These political and regulatory commitments drew Golden Harvest Alaska Seafoods to Adak. (With remote communities such as Adak, capital investments depend on guaranteed access to fish, because otherwise, the costs of competing with offshore fleets are prohibitive).
Then, starting in 2018, the reduced Pacific cod harvests in the Bering Sea began pushing that fleet into the Aleutian Islands. The outcry at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council caused the offshore fleet to work out a temporary moratorium, allowing continued participation by Adak.
However, in the background these same Washington state-based interests successfully sued NOAA to overturn the entire Fisheries Management Plan amendment that guaranteed Adak and Atka some participation in this fishery. In mid-2019, those same Washington state-based interests also blocked Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan’s efforts to restore the program through congressional action.
Adak’s share of the federal waters fishery fell from an average of 5,000 metric tons (11 million pounds) to zero in early 2020. The result was inevitable. There is no longer a sustainable private-sector economy in Adak and the entire community, including the school, is in jeopardy.
Steve Minor is a long time Alaska coastal community advocate with extensive experience in commercial fisheries. He lives in Anchorage.