Dunleavy administration announces new task force to tackle the thorny issue of trawler bycatch

Two people in orange jackets work on a boat.
Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice work to unload a trawl net full of pollock from on board the fishing vessel Commodore on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office recently announced that it’s setting up a task force to tackle the thorny issue of trawler bycatch.

Bycatch is what fishermen catch unintentionally — fish they aren’t targeting that get caught up in their nets, anyway. Federal bycatch data shows trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska this year have caught tens of thousands of chinook salmon, millions of pounds of halibut and hundreds of thousands of crabs.

Meanwhile staple species like chinook salmon, red king crab and halibut have been on the decline, forcing subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen to pack up nets or reduce harvest.

“We’ve had a reduction in or closure of the crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. The [North Pacific Fishery Management] Council is discussing how to deal with halibut bycatch, and I think there’s a lot of perception that there are bycatch issues associated with what’s happened with salmon in Western Alaska systems,” said Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

And, he said, his boss has taken notice.

“I think the governor was hearing loud and clear that there was just a lot of noise around the issue of bycatch,” Vincent-Lang said Friday, “And I think he wanted to get Alaskans together, discuss what the issue is, what we know about it, what we don’t know about and identify different strategies that we all could take to try to reduce bycatch or manage bycatch better.”

The executive order establishing the task force says its goal is to study the impacts of bycatch on what it calls “high-value” state fisheries, recommend policies based on that impact, advise state agencies on how to address bycatch and use science to inform policy-makers and the public about how bycatch is felt in Alaska fisheries.

Vincent-Lang said that “high-value” designation is meant to be more expansive than just cash value.

“It could have value to coastal communities in terms of jobs and collateral benefits of the value back from collecting fish taxes to those communities,” he said. “You can have high value for food security, it could have a high value for cultural purposes.”

RELATED: Kuskokwim River working group tackles trawler salmon bycatch

The task force will be made up of 13 voting members, nominated by the governor, meant to capture a swath of Alaska fishing interests. That means seats for state administration officials, various fisheries, Alaska Native organizations and the general public.

The task force will also include two non-voting members from the state legislature, nominated by the leadership of the House and Senate. The chair and vice-chair of the task force aren’t set yet — they’ll be selected by the governor once the voting seats are filled.

Bycatch critics warn that the task force’s effectiveness will depend on its composition.

“That task force initiative is definitely welcome,” said David Bayes, a longtime sport charter business owner in Homer. “It shows a level of commitment from the governor’s office which we’ve rarely seen.”

In addition to his charter business, Bayes is also an online activist of sorts, moderating a Facebook group called STOP Alaskan Trawler Bycatch that has more than 15,000 member.

“We’ve seen, a lot of times, especially at the NPFMC, that undercurrents of the trawl industry run pretty deep in Alaska commerce and politics,” he said.

Bayes is talking about the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has been criticized for giving too much clout to big-money industry trawlers who are responsible for much of Alaska’s bycatch.

“One of the named seats or positions [on the task force] is a representative from the NPFMC,” Bayes said, “There’s also a trawl rep on [the task force]. Again, it’s kind of this question of: Are they speaking towards conventions and practicability in the industry? Or are they going to try and derail the conversation by saying it’s all a facade, or something that we shouldn’t worry about in the first place?”

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Bayes said he’s planning to apply for a seat on the governor’s task force. He said he’s optimistic that this could be a new opportunity for fisheries users to have a voice.

Most bycatch happens in federal waters, beyond the 3-mile line. Vincent-Lang said the Dunleavy administration hopes the bycatch task force will have an impact on federal fisheries management.

“I have a seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,” Vincent-Lang said, “[So] hopefully the information we collect will be used to inform federal decision making — Council decision-making regarding bycatch moving forward.”

But he also said that bycatch in state waters deserves scrutiny, and ideas that come out of the task force could inform decisions at the state Board of Fisheries or within the administration.

The bycatch task force won’t have funding to allocate towards research. Vincent-Lang said that’s a piece of the puzzle that will come once it issues recommendations to policymakers next year.

“Funding will probably be some joint effort between industries associated with bycatch, users, as well as state and federal efforts,” he said. “But before we identify the money for it, we need to identify what it is we want to do.”

Vincent-Lang said he hopes the administration can convene the group early next year to meet on a monthly basis, as outlined in the governor’s order. The task will be dissolved on Nov. 30, 2022.

The deadline to apply to serve on the task force is Dec. 3.

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