Cod Fishermen Upend Carveout for Alaskan Villages

A cod to be auctioned sits on ice at the fish exchange in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge cut the line Thursday on the government’s effort to promote sustainable cod-processing operations in a pair of Alaskan fishing villages.

Unveiled in 2016, the new scheme carved out a portion of the Pacific cod fishery off the coast of the Aleutian Islands to be used exclusively each year by vessels that planned to process their catch onshore rather than at sea.

Pacific cod, in contrast to the much-suffering Atlantic cod, is one of the most abundant and lucrative species of groundfish harvested in the region. 

Without government intervention, however, the National Marine Fishery Service argued that the Aleutian fishing communities of Adak and Atka would catch less and less cod, and struggle to compete as centers for fish processing.

The new scheme prompted a challenge, however, from several trade groups and commercial fishing companies. 

Led by The Groundfish Forum, these groups secured summary judgment Thursday from U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in Washington.

Finding no evidence that 2016 amendment satisfied the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Kelly “that the service may only regulate conduct that qualifies as ‘fishing’ under the MSA.”

The amendment here by contrast regulates onshore processing activities.

Though Kelly otherwise concluded that the agency acted within its authority, she rejected arguments from the government that Amendment 113, as it is known, was designed to benefit Adak and, to a lesser extent, Atka.

“The court takes no position on the merits of that choice as a policy matter, but the court cannot endorse the service’s conclusion that A113 is an exercise of authority consistent with National Standard 8 and the secretary’s explanation of what that standard permit,” the ruling states.

Though both Adak and Atka intervened in the case as defendants, the ruling notes that neither had much in the way of cod-processing opportunities when A113 was passed.

“Since its establishment in 1999, the Adak shoreplant has only been open for processing intermittently, complicated by several changes in ownership,” the ruling states.

About 100 miles east of Adak, the more remote Atka has only “recently begun a multimillion-dollar expansion and improvement project” that would allow its existing facility to process multiple species, including Pacific cod.

Representatives for the parties did not return a request for comment.

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