A heap of slimy fish heads nearly filled a deep tote. Above, workers finished sorting stacks of decapitated halibut they had run through a grim mechanical apparatus.
“Right here we have a guillotine blade,” said Mike Lauer, showing off the de-heading device.
“We’ll sell the cheeks, and then we can use the heads for bait,” he added.
Lauer is in charge of quality control for Golden Harvest, a processing plant on Adak that’s at the center of a fish war in the Bering Sea pitting two small Aleutian Island communities against large out of state fishing interests. And the implications of that fight could stretch to other coastal fishing towns in Alaska.
At the center of the dispute is cod, which has grown increasingly valuable, particularly since stocks in the Gulf of Alaska crashed in recent years. Amid an increasingly competitive race for cod in the Bering Sea, local groups have pushed a portion of that catch to go to a processing plant on the remote island of Adak.
But that large commercial operators oppose the effort, saying the arrangement isn’t fair and was handled improperly. The dispute will be taken up this week at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week in Homer.
In the meantime, the town of Adak is in limbo, facing the possibility of the fish plant having no cod to process.
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Golden Harvest is in its second year operating in Adak. Other companies have tried their hand at the business, running operations out of a former military warehouse converted into a processing plant. But so far they have all failed.
In the first year, Golden Harvest handled around 28 million pounds of raw seafood. The majority of that, roughly 20 million pounds, was cod. Part of the reason for that was because of Amendment 113, a rule passed in 2016 that said large fishing vessels had to set aside 5,000 metric tons of their cod catch for on-shore processing plants in the western Aleutians, meaning Adak or Atka (the plant in Atka cannot currently process cod, but that may change in the future). But the provision was challenged in court, and this March a federal ruling could undo those gains.
Now, it’s not clear Adak will get any cod during the upcoming season.
“That’s serious money on the table,” said, Steve Minor, a spokesperson for Golden Harvest.
According to Minor, the 5,000 tons set-aside for on-shore processors in the Aleutians is a small percentage of the total amount of cod caught in the Bering Sea. But for his business, it’s what makes the whole operation financially feasible.
“It’s more serious to us– because it kills us not to have it–than it is to them, but that is what this is about,” Minor said.
In 2019, the allocation specified under Amendment 113 was about 2.8 percent of the total allowable cod harvest in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.
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The issue goes beyond just Adak and Atka. The Amendment 113 took 10 years to work out among stakeholders at the NPFMC. Less than a month after Adak’s cod share went into effect, a coalition of Seattle-based commercial fishing interests challenged it in federal court. A judge in Washington, D.C. sided with the Groundfish Forum, throwing out the plan detailed in the amendment, saying that by singling out a particular community for fishing privileges and failing to promote conservation, it violated provisions of the Magnuson Stevens Act.
With tens-of-millions of dollars on the line in the Bering Sea cod fishery, Minor believes Alaskans should be worried that distant courts and officials are overruling local bodies like the NPFMC when it comes to carving up resources.
“These programs grant these companies exclusive fishing rights, and that’ll be the same for cod,” Minor said. “And we’re being told Alaska communities shouldn’t be given a little tiny piece of the pie? That makes no sense.”
But others view Amendment 113 as unfair protectionism.
Brent Paine runs United Catcher Boats, one of the groups that sued over the rule because it hurt his members.
“It’s a direct cost, or an impact, to the eastern Bering Sea fleet,” Paine said.
His group takes issue with the amount of cod that was set aside for Adak, as well as the way that the island’s advocates used their political connections to push the plan through at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
According to Paine, his members could live with a smaller share of cod being set aside for Adak. But he wants that decision to be made through a process that involves competing fishing interests, which he doesn’t believe has happened so far.
And he pointed out that Amendment 13 has been shot down by multiple federal entities. Lawmakers failed to find a legislative fix earlier this year. In addition to a district court ruling against the provision, the Commerce Department rejected an appeal to overturn the decision.
“They’re zero for three,” Paine said. “So they might want to think about talking with us, and working collaboratively on a solution here.”
The two sides disagree about what’s fair when it comes to allocating cod. But one thing few people argue with is that if the plant closes, the community on Adak of around 120 people will have a much harder time surviving. 49 percent of the city’s operating budget is connected to revenues from fish processing, according to City Manager Layton Lockett. Having seen other operators come and go from the plant in the past, Lockett said when the business closes the community struggles.
“This amendment created an environment of stability to access a federal resource,” he said.
Unlike large motherships and catcher boats trawling vast expanses of the ocean, he added, “you can’t move communities. If that were the case, I’m sure a few would do so.”
Adak, Golden Harvest, and other local stakeholders have suggested the NPFMC could re-write Amendment 113 in a way that will survive a court challenge. But the council moves slowly, and few are optimistic they’ll find a solution in time for the start of the cod season in January.
Nat Herz contributed reporting from Anchorage