Kodiak has just had another successful Whale Fest. Many events around town celebrated the return of the gray whales migrating past the island on their journey from the warmer waters off the coast of Mexico to the rich feeding grounds of the Bering Sea. Though the whales have made this journey every year for the past thousands of years, this was the 15th anniversary of Whale Fest in Kodiak. Personally, I have come to treasure that hike along the cliffs at Narrow Cape with the view of the spouts and curved backs of whales, the eagles soaring around, the bison in the background, curious seals watching our lunch, and an occasional deer or fox sighting for the true coming of spring.

The end of Whale Fest also means that May is just around the corner and salmon smolt are leaving their freshwater nurseries heading for the ocean. Very soon the adult salmon will come back to their spawning grounds. Every person with a boat and a taste for good fish is getting ready to catch their share of the bounty. The thought of a beautiful king salmon (also called chinook) on the dinner table can make one’s mouth water.

Yet, while some people were busy preparing for Whale Fest, others were busy discussing the fate of chinook salmon around Kodiak at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The problem is this: In rivers around Kodiak and in other places in Alaska, king salmon returns have diminished, in some cases to such woefully low numbers that the fishing had to be shut down in an attempt to protect the few fish that reached the rivers to spawn. At the same time, the number of king salmon in the trawl fishery bycatch in 2010 was 41,000 fish, a record number according to federal statistics.

Bycatch in fisheries is defined as follows: fish and other marine species caught unintentionally while targeting another species. It can include species other than the targeted species or individuals of the targeted species that are too small. If you were out fishing for salmon and you catch a rockfish, it would be considered bycatch. If this happens to you as a weekend angler, there is no law against keeping the rockfish (some other species may be regulated, so check the rules before you go). However, in the commercial fisheries, the law prohibits you from fishing for the “wrong” fish. Whatever comes up in the net and can’t be sold gets thrown back overboard, mostly dead.

Our fisheries are managed under the general law that commercial harvest of any marine species is prohibited unless it is permitted. In other words, if you want to catch and sell something you need to get a special permit first. If you have a permit for pollock, you cannot sell salmon or crab on it. The problem is that no fishery is absolutely clean and only catches what it targets. Some types of gear are much worse at getting the wrong fish than others.

Pollock like to sit near the bottom and the fishery is conducted with trawls that are dragged behind large boats, scraping the ocean bottom and chasing the fish up, so that in their attempt to flee the fish get caught in the net. Over the years, trawl designs have been improved to cause less damage to the ocean bottom, but slow and immobile marine species living on or in the ocean bottom suffer greatly from getting run over by these large nets. Even free-swimming species get caught incidentally. Last year, 41,000 king salmon got in the way of the nets in the Kodiak area, more than twice the long-term average number of king salmon caught incidentally in that fishery. Many people, including commercial fishermen, sports fishermen and coastal residents were upset to see such a waste of their kings and stepped up to get an expedited decision from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to limit the number of kings allowed as bycatch in the trawl fishery.

Bycatch is a large topic in fisheries politics and one that keeps rearing its ugly head. Chinook is just one of the latest examples; last year, people stood up for the protection of young tanner crab killed in bycatch. If one fishery incidentally harms a species targeted by another fishery, the fight at the council meetings is inevitable as each group of fishermen is trying to protect their resource.

The problem, however, is much more complex than protecting individual species or fisheries. In the context of our ocean habitat, fishermen are but one more large predator affecting the interplay of multiple species that all depend on each other in complex ways. To protect the fish and crab we like to eat and ensure they have places to grow and thrive, we need to understand what each species needs to prosper. Life in our oceans is amazingly complex, and though we come as visitors floating on the surface with our nets extended to the depth, we are part of the ocean ecosystem and our actions can influence the web of life in sometimes unexpected ways.

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