SEATTLE — For more than a quarter-century, three Washington-based crab boats named Bering Sea, Arctic Sea and North Sea worked harvest grounds off Alaska, then sent profits south to their Puget Sound owners.
The vessels, among the top-grossing crabbers in the North Pacific fleet, are still berthed in Seattle. But they are now owned by Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of six Alaska economic-development nonprofits that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Northwest fleets that catch crab, pollock and other fish.
These nonprofits represent 65 Alaska native communities that have long struggled with high unemployment and poverty. They were launched by a federal fishery council, which vested them with valuable shares in the regulated seafood harvest to help generate seafood jobs and dollars for those communities. And their success is a source of pride in a state that for decades chafed at the domination of its fishing industry by outside fleets.
But a proposal by one nonprofit to base some boats in Alaska as early as 2014 has sparked concern in Seattle, where fishing fleets directly sustain more than 5,000 jobs and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
“The fishing industry in Washington and Oregon has arrived at a fateful crossroads,” declared a letter sent last month to the state’s congressional delegation by four Washingtonians who have been involved in the industry or the fishery council. The letter complains of a “massive transfer of wealth” resulting from undue Alaska influence on federal fishery policy.
“When you look at the advantages they have, they (the Alaska nonprofits) obviously are going to end up being king of the hill,” said Kris Poulsen, a retired Washington crabber who signed the letter. “We need a more equal playing field.”
Poulsen and the others proposed that Congress boost Northwest representation on the regional council that helps set harvest rules.
The letter has riled the Alaskans who lead the nonprofit groups. They say the Northwest fleets received most of the North Pacific harvest shares, and the federal policy that launched their groups helped prevent aboriginal communities from getting shut out of a fishing industry that has taken billions of dollars of seafood from the ocean off Alaska’s shores.
“I think this is revisionist history,” said Larry Cotter, chief executive officer of the Aleutian Pribolof Island Community Development Association. “The letter seeks to recolonize Alaska, and I just think that — finally — we are beyond that.”
If some of the Alaska vessels do leave Seattle, their most likely home port would be Seward, which sits at the end of an ice-free fjord on the Kenai Peninsula.
Seward secured more than $400,000 in state funds to study port expansion to accommodate the Seattle fleets, and hopes to get more than $30 million in additional state or other funds to finance the work. According to the current schedule, Coastal Villages fleet could begin to move into new Seward berths by 2014.
Morgen Crow, executive director of Coastal Villages, cautions that there is no final decision to move his group’s fleet.
Unlike Coastal Villages, other Alaska nonprofits haven’t acquired a majority stake in most of their Washington vessels, so their partners likely would have to approve moving home ports to Alaska.
The birth of the Alaska nonprofits dates back to the early 1990s, when the foreign fleets that once dominated the harvests had been replaced by U.S. fleets largely based in Washington and Oregon.
To end a bitter fight over pollock, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which shapes harvest policies off Alaska, divided up the catch among rival fleets. Six of the 11 voting members are from Alaska, and the council in 1991 allocated 7.5 percent of the annual harvest to Bering Sea communities.
In the years that followed, federal actions increased the western Alaska pollock share to 10 percent, and also awarded shares of crab, cod, halibut, flatfish and other seafood harvests.
Early on, the six nonprofits that control these harvest shares teamed up with Seattle-based companies that had the vessels to catch this seafood.
Alaska’s dominance on the federal fishery council reflects a deal struck by Washington Democrat Sen. Warren Magnuson and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens as they crafted landmark 1976 legislation that claimed all fishery resources within 200-mile limits of U.S. shores as a federal resource.
Though deemed a federal resource, the seafood lay off Alaska’s coasts; that state got the majority of council members and is the site of most of the council meetings.
So far, the Northwest delegation has opted not to pick a fight with Alaska to try to change the council. If the Northwest delegation does try to change the council, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat who chairs the fishery subcommittee, vows that such a bill “will never see the light of day,” according to Julie Hasquet, Begich’s spokeswoman.