Thursday, February 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seven More Lives Lost To Alaska's Fish Politics

WHILE senators and fish managers play numbers games in an Anchorage hotel, families and friends grieve the loss of seven more young men swallowed up in a murky sea of big-money politics.

The Seattle-based crab boat Pacesetter disappeared in the storm-tossed Bering Sea on Saturday. There is virtually no hope for skipper Matt Pope of Seattle and his crew of six. Tragedy has become an annual event. Last January, the Northwest Mariner disappeared in those waters with six Seattle-area men.

Crabbing is profitable and risky - probably the most dangerous job in the nation. The Bering Sea, where the fishing is best, is notorious for its fierce seas, winds and ice. Fishermen brave those elements in boats piled high with heavy crab pots, prone to capsize.

Risks are aggravated by irrational management policies and perpetuated by Alaska politicians, competing fish processors and shortsighted environmentalists.

It makes no sense to fish through storms like the one that took the Pacesetter. Fishermen, however, feel they have no choice because the open-access policy favored by Alaskans promotes wide-open competition. The boat that takes the risks catches the most crab - if, that is, it comes home at all.

Most authorities agree the best solution is a system of individual quotas, which allow fishermen to choose when to fish based on variables such as price and weather conditions. That system has dramatically reduced the accident rate in the halibut and sablefish fleet, which works the same waters. If the Pacesetter crew had been fishing on a quota system, it would not have steamed into that Bering Sea storm, says the brother of one of the missing.

Quota systems are opposed by Alaskan politicians and processors because they fear the fish harvest, worth hundreds of millions, will be monopolized by Seattle-area boats. Groups like Greenpeace say quotas amount to giving away a public resource.

Both sides should be confronting the grim possibility that their stubborn resistance to rational reform contributed to this latest loss of life.

The toll in Alaska's fisheries is a national tragedy and a regional disgrace. Federal officials, meeting this week in Anchorage, know what needs to be done. All they need is the guts to take a political risk and begin instituting a management system that fishermen, whatever their home port, can live with.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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