Bill Roberts

Bill Roberts 

Bycatch has been on everyone’s mind for months now. Between the collapse of the salmon population in the Yukon River and discussions at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, people have been questioning what the impact of bycatch is and what, if anything, should be done. 

Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts wants to address the problem head-on. He applied to the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force that Gov. Mike Dunleavy established through an Administrative Order last month, and he was interviewed for the position on Friday. 

“Kodiak definitely needs to be represented on the task force,” Roberts said. “Anytime we set up a board that includes anyone from across the state we need to have our voice heard.”

Roberts is no stranger to fisheries. He worked for a trawler for eight years when he first came to the island with his family in 1976. He does not have any ties to any fishing organizations, he said.

“As a mayor I try to keep an open mind because I represent everybody,” he said. “I’m aware of what the bycatch does, I’m aware that it closes down the fisheries and I’m aware that in some cases the bycatch is astronomical and we need to do something about it.”

Even though all fisheries have bycatch, the trawling fleets catch the most.

In 2019, all types of trawlers caught 92 million pounds of bycatch, according to information Glenn Merrill, the Alaska regional manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, presented to the Alaska House of Representatives Fisheries Committee last month. The Bering Sea pollock fishery alone caught 500,000 chums and 20,000 Chinooks as bycatch, Merrill said. Of those fish, 5,200 of them, or 1%, were estimated to have been from the Yukon River, according to Merrill. 

This summer, the subsistence fishing season for chinook and chum salmon in the Yukon River was cancelled, because of low returns. Many people are pointing their fingers at trawling fleets.

“Bycatch has been a big topic for a long time,” Roberts said. “I do not see a lot of true solutions. I am hoping that the task force can come up with a solution that allows the continuation of the trawl fleet without problems of bycatch.”

Each fishery is given a specific amount of bycatch that is deemed acceptable. After that amount of bycatch is caught, the fishery shuts down. 

There are many critics of this policy. Some people have argued that the lower populations of halibut and the low returns of salmon area result from fish populations moving locations, not bycatch. Shutting down fisheries will not solve the problem of depleting populations, it would only hurt the people in the fishery, Julie Bonney, executive director of the Groundfish Data Bank, said in a past interview with the KDM.

Roberts doesn’t deny that bycatch may have an impact, but he is also strongly opposed to shutting down fisheries. This can have a devastating impact on the communities that have economic ties to those fleets, including Kodiak, where fish from the trawlers is delivered to be processed, according to Roberts. 

Before any recommendations are made, the task force needs to understand the full scope of the problem, Roberts said. The best way to do this is to increase the number of observers on fishing vessels, he said. Beyond that first step, Roberts is “open to more ideas” about how to address issues with bycatch.

The exact responsibilities of the task force are unclear. In the administrative order that established it, it is stated that the task force will study bycatch and advise policy, but did not specify who the task force would be advising. The vast majority of bycatch is caught in federal waters, which is under the jurisdiction of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, not the State of Alaska.

The Bycatch Review Task Force will have 13 voting members who will be appointed by Dunleavy. This task force will consist of: Doug Vincent-Lang in his capacity as the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, or someone he designates; the Julie Anderson in her capacity as the Commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, or someone she designates; one representative from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council; one representative of an organization representing Community Development Quote entities in the state; one active trawl fisherman or a representative of the trawl sector in the state; one active salmon harvester or a representative of salmon fishermen in the state; one active crab harvester or a representative of crab fishermen in the state; one active halibut fisherman or a representative of halibut fishermen in the state; one active fishing charter operator or s representative of charter operations in the state; one representative of the general public; one representative of an organization that represents Alaska Natives; one representative of an organization that represent personal use and sports fishermen in the state; and a mayor from a coastal community.

In addition to these voting members, the Alaska State Senate President Peter Micciche and the Speaker of the House for the Alaska House of Representatives Louise Stutes will each appoint a nonvoting member to the task force.

Dunleavy’s appointees will most likely be announced before the holidays, Roberts said.

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