A political tug of war is shaping up within the regional seafood industry over a U.S. Senate bill that for the first time would give shore-based...

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A political tug of war is shaping up within the regional seafood industry over a U.S. Senate bill that for the first time would give shore-based processors and fishermen vested harvest rights to fish off the Washington and Oregon coast.

The proposal, introduced July 28 by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., would divvy up the harvest rights to whiting, worth more than $7 million annually. If approved by Congress, the bill could also be the template that is used to divide shares of rockfish and other major Pacific groundfish harvests.

Backers of the bill hope to create a slower-paced, less-wasteful and thus more-profitable harvest of a snaggle-toothed fish that yields a white flesh for frozen fillets and surimi paste used to make simulated seafood products.

“The benefit to all parties is that we end the race for the fish, and improve our ability to market in the world economy,” said Craig Urness, legal counsel for Pacific Seafood Group, one of the largest whiting processors in the Northwest.

The terms of such reform proposals, which vest private harvest rights to a public-fishery resource, over the years have triggered intense debate. In this region, much of the controversy surrounds the option of allowing shore-based processors to gain special rights to the harvest.

In August of 2002, the federal Justice Department went on record against such special rights, known as processor shares. In a memorandum, Justice Department officials said the shares would limit competition, and possibly deter the development of new products and new efficiencies. Congress still approved processor shares for Alaska’s crab harvest, but federal legislation forbids any further expansion of processor shares to other fisheries.

The Smith bill would lift that ban on whiting, splitting the harvest rights evenly between processors and fishermen who have had previous involvement in the fishery. The processors, however, generally would not be able to fish for their shares directly. Instead, they would have to contract with a vested vessel owner to bring that whiting ashore.

Pacific Seafood, a major Northwest processor, would rank among the biggest beneficiaries of the plan, and was involved in the drafting of the Senate bill. Last week, it helped finance advertisements in Oregon, California and Washington coastal newspapers touting the bill. Other major beneficiaries include Westport-based Ocean Gold Seafoods, which along with a related company employs more than 400 people in Grays Harbor County.

The whiting harvest unfolds during the summer months, with trawlers making quick day trips out to sea, netting large volumes of the perishable fish and hauling them back to shore.

In making their pitch for the bill, processors have the support of one major group of whiting fishermen, who operate more than 15 vessels that deliver the bulk of the whiting to the shore-side plants.

“These plants have invested millions of dollars to process these fish, and I do believe they deserve something for that,” said David Jincks, president of Midwater Trawler’s Cooperative.

But other fishermen are fiercely opposed to the concept. The effect would be “like getting in front of a locomotive,” said Dave Fraser, a Port Townsend-based trawler whose vessel nets pollock.

Processor representatives say the bill has been fairly crafted to respect the rights of fishermen. But Fraser, a veteran of the North Pacific fisheries, said the Smith bill is tilted more toward processors than other harvest-reform plans that eventually took hold off Alaska’s coast.

The Senate bill, in some respects, represents an end run around the advisory body that is charged by Congress with helping to shape regional harvest policy. The Pacific Fishery Management Council already has launched a lengthy process to develop a harvest-share plan, and in June voted against any congressional effort that would usurp that effort.

“I support the council process, and this undercuts that,” said Bob Alverson, a council member and fishing-industry official from Seattle. “There is no analysis of what the impact of this bill will be on ports and communities.”

Processors say they went to the Senate because they did not think the council was willing — or able — to develop a plan that gives them a stake in the whiting harvest.

“We have been knee-deep in the council process,” said Kent Craford, a spokesman for the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

A spokesman for Smith said he has asked the council to review the legislation at a September meeting. After those comments are received, the legislation could then move forward.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com