A grilling on fish that is taken as bycatch didn’t satisfy the appetites of a bipartisan group of Alaska legislators at a special hearing Nov. 15 by the House Fisheries Committee.

“We probably could not be more diametrically opposed on many things but we are frustrated with the waste of the resource and we are in lock step. It’s all about the best economics and the best stewardship of our resources,” said Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, who devoted his entire November Capital Report to the topic.

“The fish don’t care if you’re red or blue,” said Sarah Vance, R-Homer, the catalyst behind the bycatch hearing. “We lay aside everything else and focus on good stewardship and making sure that every fisherman is able to get fish in the freezer and food on the table.”        

The bycatch issue came to a head this summer when all Yukon River salmon fisheries were canceled due to so few returning Chinook and chums. Along with ocean and climate impacts, villagers questioned the takes by huge trawlers that catch and process fish at sea.

A presentation by Glenn Merrill, regional administrator at NOAA Fisheries/Alaska, showed that in the 2019 Bering Sea pollock fishery 20,000 Chinook salmon were taken as bycatch and more than 500,000 chums, but only 1% originated at the Yukon River.      

The hearing shifted from salmon to the building anger among Alaskans over the amounts of halibut, crab and other creatures taken as bycatch in federally managed waters (3-200 miles out), where nearly 65% of Alaska’s fish volumes are harvested.

Most bycatch is taken by the wrong gear or the fish is caught out of season or it’s too small and federal law dictates that it must be thrown overboard, Merrill explained.

He showed that bycatch totals in 2020 were 3.3 million pounds by pot gear, over 38.5 million pounds by hook and line gear and over 92 million pounds by trawlers, who fish at varying depths down to the bottom.

Federal rules for fisheries “require balancing minimizing bycatch to the extent practicable while achieving the optimum yield from each fishery,” Merrill told the Fish Committee and 140 watchers and listeners.

How does that play out on the water? Some examples:

Bering Sea sablefish (black cod) in 2020 ended the year at 7.9 million pounds (519%) over the trawl bycatch limit. Managers responded by increasing the 2021 trawl limit by 65%.

In response to complaints, the NPFMC said in June: “When constraints such as high bycatch rates emerge, vessel operators do not have the option to cease fishing completely because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable.” 

Sablefish takes are currently 2 million pounds (165%) over the 2021 bycatch limit and fishing continues.

A fundamental management failure is now on display in the Bering Sea crab fisheries, where trawl bycatch for 2021/22 is higher than what the crabbers can take.

A mish-mash of numbers shows that trawl caps for snow crab, for example, are 5.99 million individual crabs, while the catch quota for the crab fleet is 5.6 million pounds. At an average weight of 1.3 pounds, the trawl snow crab bycatch could total 7.78 million pounds. 

For Bristol Bay red king crab, closed for the first time in 25 years, trawlers are allowed 80,000 animals totaling more than 500,000 pounds.

Many Alaskans are calling for a shift away from protecting “optimum yields” in industrial trawl fisheries towards optimizing the health of the state’s fishery resources and communities. 

That will be put to the test in early December when, after six years of discussion and 26.5 million pounds of halibut dumped, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) is poised to reduce a fixed cap of more than four million pounds by bottom trawlers targeting flatfish in halibut nursery grounds of the Bering Sea. 

Those fish will grow and migrate through the Gulf of Alaska and downstream to British Columbia, all the way to California.

That means that over 3,000 commercial halibut fishermen, 955 charter operators, several thousand halibut sport fishermen and over 4,000 subsistence harvesters all are affected by halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, according to Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and a former NPFMC member.

The State of Alaska has a vote on the bycatch reduction options being considered. Rep. Vance asked what that position will be.

“We are reviewing all the materials at the present time but we don’t have a position yet on what we’re going to do,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “We are going to take a step to have a significant reduction in halibut bycatch, but which alternative would be premature to postulate what we will ultimately support until we’re done reading all the materials in advance of that meeting.”

The 20 bottom trawlers in this bycatch scenario are all “Seattle based” and owned by “six or so companies,” said NPFMC Director Dave Witherell, who also presented at the hearing.

Vincent-Lang quickly came to their defense.

“Although they may be homeported in Seattle, they pay significant fishery landing taxes to the state of Alaska and what we’re seeing is the ownership of these vessels is increasingly becoming Alaska-based with the Community Development Quota groups in Western Alaska basically buying into this industry,” Vincent-Lang said. “That contributes a lot to those coastal economies.”

There are six CDQ groups that represent 65 communities within 50 nautical miles of the Bering Sea coast. All are allocated portions of the region’s catches; all are owners or part owners of large fishing vessels.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, asked the state’s perspective on habitat impacts by bottom trawlers on crabs and other species.

“I am going to defer an answer on that because I have not given that a good deal of thought,” Vincent-Lang replied. “I will speak to my staff and promise to get back to you with an assessment on that. But I have not really dug down into that issue to be able to answer in a good manner right now.”

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, questioned the makeup of the NPFMC — notably its lack of indigenous members.   

“The appointments of the membership are made by the governors of Alaska and Washington,” said Witherell. “If the governor of Alaska wants to appoint someone who’s Native, the governor can do so.”

The NPFMC makeup is raising eyebrows among Alaskans because a majority of voting members of the NPFMC along with the top executives of its 19 member Advisory Panel have direct ties to the trawl fleets. (Google it.)

NPFMC chair Simon Kinneen, for example, is the vice president and quota and acquisitions manager for Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., owner of Glacier Fish Co., which operates 201-foot and 376-foot trawlers in the Bering Sea.

“The lack of transparency and disclosure of conflicts of interest is a great concern,” said Rep. McCabe.

Rep. Vance agreed.

“My fishermen have stated how it’s changed over the years,” she said. “It used to be more fishermen who have boats and are out there on a regular basis. Now it’s more corporate and attorneys who are not directly engaged in the fisheries. That’s a great concern because they’re losing that perspective of what it’s like to be out there on the water. That’s the voice I’m going to carry.”

The Fish Committee members said they were generally dissatisfied with the information they received during the three-hour hearing.

“I was very frustrated with what we saw, and I think it’s time for the NPFMC and NOAA to change their presentation. From what I understand, it’s very old and very tired information and it’s time to fix it. It’s time to be transparent with the public,” McCabe said in a phone conversation. “It was a mix of numbers, what exactly does that all mean? I think the general public wants to know how many pounds, how many fish across the board, and what’s been done to mitigate the bycatch. It’s not my intent to try to shut them down in any manner, but we need to be honest with the public.”

“It wasn’t portrayed in a way that gave the true representation of what’s going out on the water,” echoed Rep. Vance. “That needs to be heard, and we need to be able to get clarifications on the information that was provided.” 

“I also find it very disappointing for the Dunleavy Administration, two weeks out from the NPFMC decision, to not verbalize the alternative they support. We want definitive answers and actions and policy direction from them,” Vance added.

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, said she “appreciated the good information” at the bycatch hearing but would like the presenters to provide better answers to the Fish Committee’s questions.

“Is there a difference in bycatch depending upon which method is used and/or how deep the trawl industry is allowed to fish? And I’d like to learn more about the effects on the environment,” Story said, adding that she will advocate for answers from ADF&G.  

“Commissioner Vincent-Lang seemed to suggest that our biggest management issues were beyond our control, like other country’s fisheries. I think it is critical that our Commissioner, NOAA and the NPFMC be out front advocating to our congressional delegation on the importance of this, as well as state legislators,” Story added. “They said they felt many factors may be currently out of their hands, but I disagree and feel they can still have an impact. We need specifics on what costs and studies are needed at the federal and state levels.” 

Governor Dunleavy was quick to respond.

Within two days of the bycatch meeting, he announced formation of a 13-member Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force “to explore the issue of bycatch and provide recommendations to policy makers.”

The Administrative Order takes effect immediately and will sunset on Nov. 30, 2022. Applications are being accepted now.“I have mixed feelings about the task force,” said Vance. “We can always have more information but we need results. How long are we going to wait as fish are literally thrown overboard until we make a decision that moves us to good stewardship?” 

Rep. McCabe said the governor gave him and Reps. Vance and Kreiss-Tomkins advance notice about “rolling out the task force.” 

“And all three of us were like, isn’t it a little late for that?” McCabe said. “Shouldn’t we have had a task force to make recommendations to the state (NPFMC) voting members long before this? Why is the state just now seeming to be waking up? So yeah, we are very concerned. It’s a shame, if you ask me.”

Heather Bauscher, chair of the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee chair, put it this way in a letter to the NPFMC: “It should not be up to the small boat fleet to carry the burden of the trawl fleet’s inability to catch their target species without collateral damage.”

 

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