Crabbers will vote again on federal buyout plan - Boat owners to decide on same issue, but with corrected figures


July 7, 2004

Puget Sound, WA - Crabbers will get another chance at a $100 million federally managed buyout after fisheries managers corrected serious errors in the program and this week reopened it for a new vote by boat owners.

Ballots for the referendum to refuse or accept the buyout will be mailed out Friday, and crabbers will have until the end of the month to return their ballots, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday.

If the referendum passes, as it did once before in June, as many as two dozen crab boats could be eliminated from the fleet. The remaining vessels will pay off the federal buyout loan and divide up the catch no longer taken by the idled boats, under the plan.

Much of the fleet is based in Seattle and the Puget Sound.

"(Boat owners) will vote on the same thing as before but with corrected data," said Sheela McLean, NOAA spokeswoman.

In late June, federal fisheries officials scrapped the original vote when they learned errors in their calculations likely awarded voluntary buyouts to the wrong boats and overestimated the amount of extra crab the remaining boats would get.

Under the original calculations, industry officials said the additional available catch -- estimated at 19 percent of the king crab stock for example -- would have funded buyout loan payments with additional profit left over. In all, 28 boats would have been paid $98 million to be removed from the 280-boat crab fleet, about half of those from the Seattle area.

Then federal officials realized their mistake: They had calculated boats with multiple owners as having multiple catch histories. In other words, a boat with two owners mistakenly showed double its average catch. Because the buyouts were based, in part, on boats that caught the most crab, some vessels and owners with inflated histories won multimillion-dollar payments.

"The referendum was found to be materially inaccurate," McLean said.

The mistake, discovered two weeks after the announced buyout, angered crabbers who were awarded buyouts because they already had begun to sell equipment and release crew members. It also upset those left in the fleet because flaws in the calculations overestimated the divided, remaining catch, making the loan more difficult to pay off.

Along with ballots, crabbers will receive a new calculation about how much crab will be divided among the remaining fleet, a number likely to be lower than the first referendum.

If approved, the buyout likely will eliminate up to 140 deck jobs from crab boats. The owners can keep their ships but the vessels cannot be commercially fished again.

In Alaska last year, Red Bristol Bay King Crab sold from the boats to processors for $5 a pound. In U.S. retail fish markets it can sell for $20 to $30 a pound.

Privately, crabbers also worried about the suspended vote because it publicly revealed which owners were seeking to quit. Some crabbers in the fractious, competitive industry are worried that some boat owners will vote against others out of spite, now that they know who wants out.

Worried about potential problems caused by the federal errors, some boat owners reportedly have contacted attorneys.

"Let's just hope that cooler heads will prevail," said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, a Seattle-based trade organization that represents about half of the crabbing fleet. Thomson wants the referendum to pass again.

McLean said if it passes a second time, owners will be notified by early August. Thomson said no one is happy about a second vote, but "it's the best we can do at this point."

P-I reporter Mike Lewis can be reached at 206-448-8140 or



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