Linda Behnken is a member of the North Pacific Fisheries Council in Sitka, Alaska.



Vaughn Anthony, a NMFS advisor in New England on the scientific side, was saying that year after year the fish stocks are going down because of short-term interests and that the solution is to make sure that the conflict of interest is eliminated.

The North Pacific Council has never set quotas above what's recommended by the Science and Statistical Committee, by our scientists saying this is as much as the resource can sustainably handle. And that needs to be bottom-lined for every council. I think in the North Pacific we've done a good job of managing from a single species perspective because we've always followed the advice of our scientific team.

And we're trying now to broaden into ecosystem-based management, which takes a whole lot of more information and bigger-picture thinking than the councils have in the past. We've tended to manage the resources for the fish and leave out some of the other predators and the non-target species, non-commercially important species in our thinking. So there's going to be some growing pains there.

But I think the North Pacific Council has documented that the Council's system can work. It's a great way the public to be really involved in the management of the fisheries, as opposed to things all happening back in Washington, D.C. A lot of people will criticize the Councils if there isn't enough broad-based representation, and that's something that I know our governor has been working towards in the last few rounds of council appointments and putting people on there to represent more diverse interests, both on our advisory panel and on the Council.

So I think that's something every council will have to strive for in having a conservation voice on there, maybe a consumer voice, that kind of representation. But generally speaking, I think the most important aspect is for the Councils to always follow the advice of their scientists, or never exceed the voice of their scientists. We have at times set quotas that quite a bit lower than what our scientists have recommended, feeling that there's other factors to take into consideration. I think the council system can work, and has worked well in the North Pacific.

But apparently you have fears that the Council has vested interests with allocation issues and so on? How do you prevent that?

With regards to IFQs, because that does involve allocations, they've become valuable over time. What the Congress is looking at doing right now is setting some standards that all councils have to follow in shaping IFQ programs.

And those involve conservation standards, such as: this program shall reduce bycatch, shall protect habitat. And then also some socio-economic provisions that it will provide entry level, it must maintain a diverse fleet and provide for communities and small boats that operate out of those communities. And I think that's absolutely essential that those kinds of standards come through Congress and those be applied to all IFQ programs. So that future councils can't weaken those protections.

So basically you're saying that there are some doings in Congress that might allay your fears that IFQs may create further consolidation?

I think the most important thing is how the program is first set up. But make sure that people don't lose sight of the goals that guided that initial design of the program. There need to be some strengthening of the standards that will guide development of all IFQ programs, and those should involve conservation standards as well as socio-economic standards.

Are there times when politics come to bear and basically defeat the best efforts to these problems?

In my nine years on the Council, I haven't seen that very often. For the most part the politicians have respected the Council as the best equipped to make the decisions. And I certainly think that if politics do start entering in and overturning the Council's decisions for purely political reasons, then you have a very serious problem.

MPAs: President Clinton made some last minute decisions before leaving the office, making it possible for NMFS to start laying out some marine reserves, and now Bush is trying to take that apart. From a fishermen's perspective, do you think there's a value in setting up a network of preserves for allowing fish to mature and lay more eggs so that they'll be some spill-over?

I think that for one thing marine reserves, or the whole 'Marine Protected Area' concept can take any number of forms. In Canada they've looked at Marine Protected Area as one way of saying, these kind of industrial fisheries is inappropriate in this area and we're going to push them outside this zone and within this zone we're going to allow community-based, small boats, or slower harvesting layer on the environment kind of techniques. And that takes the pressure off the fish in this area.

And then maybe in a smaller area we're going to say no fishing. Or only fishing with this kind of gear but certainly no trawling, or types of gear that have a harder impact on the bottom, remove larger volumes of fish in a faster amount of time.

So if they're used in a way that's really appropriate to the area, that they aren't just sort of blanket closures to all gear types even though one gear type may not be in anyway compromising the health and viability of the ecosystem, then I think they can be very useful. But a blanket closure approach worries me a lot.

We have the first-ever marine reserve in Alaska, right off of Sitka here - no groundfish fishing. It's an area that has really incredible pinnacles; phenomenal corals that are very long-lived -- 500 years old -- very fragile, they're very easily broken, rockfish, lingcod, certain species depend on those as juveniles for hiding areas.

And this pinnacle in particular has a very high abundance of lingcod, which lay eggs, and then the male guards the nest of eggs. So if anything comes in near the nest, not just out of hunger but also to guard those eggs they'll bite it, so they're very susceptible to being overfished.

And the Fish and Game biologist here went down in a submersible. She documented what was happening there and brought this proposal forward to close it to all bottom fishing, any fishing for groundfish, which includes lingcod. And local people were very supportive of that and we moved it forward it got to the Council.

Then enforcement said, you know it'd be a whole lot easier for us enforce this if you closed it to all fishing. In other words, include the salmon trawlers as well, who never have contact with the bottom, but it would just be easier because then if a boat were in the area they'd be in violation. And all of a sudden the proposal became something the people hadn't supported.

And I felt it was really important in people's trust in the system, and also the opportunity to have in the future the success of marine protected areas to not break that trust with people who've sent letters of support and testified. And so it was a bitter fight, but we ended up closing it just to groundfish, so trawlers can still trawl through the area and if they happen to catch a lingcod in there, they release it.

But the mortality of lingcod is very low on trawl gear because you know right away if they've hit the line and you can release them quickly. So that's the one marine protected area in Alaska.