Lord knows, I don’t understand all the ins and outs of the fishery. Even to those on the inside, the industry is a welter of confusing regulations that have done everything from creating unwieldly,
wide and uncomfortable vessels (designed to fit static vessel length requirements) to making a new kind of fish merchant system, where fishermen borrow from processors to buy boats and in return, pledge their catches for years into the future.
As a business model, it’s somewhat bizarre, and every single year, there’s some form of crisis.
This year, it’s been the non-final final price order on crab.
In the latest battle over crab, the Standing Fish Price Setting Panel, set up after a review of a particularly fractious year of disputes between the processors and the fisheries union, did the thing that it was supposed to do.
When the processors and the union didn’t reach a price agreement, the panel set a price.
The panel — which can pick either the submission from processors or the submission from the fisheries union, but can’t alter the winning submission — chose the processors’ $1.83 a pound for crab instead of the FFAW’s $2 a pound. The union asked the panel to reconsider; it refused, saying the conditions for reconsideration hadn’t been met.
After that, many of the fishermen tied up — some actually destroyed thousands of pounds of crab at one plant — and the fuss continued until a “compromise” was reached over the weekend, giving union members the price they’d asked for in the first place, $2, at least until May 5.
Now, certainly no one can force fishermen to go to sea to fish if catching a species will actually lose them money.
Likewise, no one should be able to force a processor to process a species if paying fishermen an established price will actually lose them money.
But why have a final arbitration system where the final arbitration isn’t final at all?
In 2011, the shoe was on the other foot when buyers didn’t like the price set for lobster, and refused to buy.
Also in 2011, a price was set for shrimp, but fishermen refused to fish at the set price and tied up.
In 2010, processors didn’t like the price of crab, which was set at $1.35 a pound — they held out for a month, refusing to buy, and then capitulated.
Now, the Standing Fish Price Setting Panel was set up to solve this problem, and, in many fisheries, comes up with a final price that’s workable for everyone.
But every single year since the latest changes to its enabling legislation in 2010, there seems to be at least one final decision that isn’t final at all.
There are regular tie-ups, and not-so-infrequent violence.
It isn’t any way to run a professional fishery.
There is one hopeful factor in
the latest sideline arrangement between processors and the union, though.
The deal lets the often-lucrative fishery get started, and it also puts in place another effort — to find a way to set more flexible prices that are actually tied to market conditions.
The new co-operative method would allow retroactive adjustments to the price for crab should market conditions change, but whether that’s a two-way street — whether prices could both increase or decrease depending on what happens during a season — has yet to be determined.
It doesn’t seem likely that the union would be very pleased with a system that could see cash-strapped processors asking for money back from fishermen, or decreased payments, should the price fall.
The price setting panel was supposed to be the final arbiter. It has worked in many fisheries, especially the smaller ones, but every single year it seems there’s nothing final about the final deal.
Something has to change.
Neither fishermen nor processors benefit from seasons left in limbo.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached
by email at email@example.com.