In the search for a solution to the problem of bycatch, the unintended at-sea harvest of non-target species, the stakes in Alaska are high.
Now a special task force is nearing the end of a year-long process to find solutions that satisfy competing interests to the problem of bycatch, which refers to fish that are caught incidentally by commercial fishers who are targeting other fish.
Many of the mostly Indigenous residents of western Alaska who depend on now-faltering salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have said strict rules to reduce at-sea bycatch are needed to help alleviate a crisis. Disasters have been declared for these fisheries.
Serena Fitka, the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association who grew up in the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s near the Bering Sea coast, said she has not been able to harvest river salmon for three years.
It’s not only about lost food, she told the task force at a meeting in Anchorage on Wednesday. “It’s also very important for rural communities because it’s our culture, which includes mental, social consequences,” she told the task force at a meeting on Wednesday. “Every single person in our communities relies on that salmon.”
Stakes are also high for the commercial industry and for communities that depend on trawling, representatives said. Trawling is a term for fishing with a large, wide net that a ship drags, often to harvest groundfish near the sea bottom.
“I’m very sympathetic to what’s happening in the Bering Sea with salmon and subsistence. But in the same token, I’m concerned for my own community that I live in,” Julie Bonney, executive director of the Kodiak-based Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, a group advocating for groundfish harvesters, told the task force. About 60% of the fish that crosses the docks at Kodiak, a major fishing port, is trawl-caught, she said.
“I want to see Kodiak prosper into the future. So trawling is an important component of the economics of the town that I live in,” she said.
The Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force, created by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last November, is due to release its final report by the end of next month. At least two additional meetings are to be held between now and then.
At Wednesday’s meeting, task force members reviewed and took public testimony on all the consensus recommendations made by the group’s various committees, with a goal of agreeing on a final set of recommendations to Dunleavy.
Possibly most striking is a draft recommendation for a firm numerical cap on chum salmon taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea’s industrial-scale pollock trawl fishery, a measure that managers have been reluctant to take in the past.
In 2021, the Bering Sea pollock fishery – one of the world’s largest seafood harvests – netted about 540,000 chum salmon as bycatch, along with halibut, crab and other species. At the same time, western Alaska subsistence fishers have been struggling with such poor returns that, at times, they have not been able to catch any fish. The runs of chum salmon, a species that is particularly important as food for Yukon and Kuskokwim villages, have been some of the lowest on record.
There are caveats on the chum-cap recommendation. Any cap must be “scientific-based,” and the recommendation suggests a phased-in approach.
Related recommendations are for enhanced science on myriad potential threats to fisheries happening from the open ocean, where prolonged heat waves have ravaged various marine populations, to the spawning grounds far inland in the upper Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, where rising temperatures have been linked to increases in parasitic infections of salmon and to dieoffs from heat stress. Much of that research is underway, but some projects have limited funding or funding that is set to expire.
Scientists have pointed to climate change as a likely cause of the fish problems, but the task force is focusing on issues the state can more directly control.
A special focus of research is the role that Asian-origin hatchery fish play in bycatch and the overall health of Alaska salmon stocks.
Of the more than 540,000 chum salmon netted in 2021 by the pollock fishery as bycatch – a total that was twice the 10-year average – the vast majority were from Asian hatcheries, and less than 10% were of western Alaska origin, according to a genetic analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Any effective chum bycatch cap should be focused on preserving Alaska-origin fish – and therefore depends on better information about fish genetics, said task force member Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“I don’t really care that much if we’re catching a whole bunch of Asiatic chums,” Vincent-Lang said of bycatch at Wednesday’s task force meeting. Lack of information was one of the reasons that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council declined in the past to establish a chum bycatch cap, said the commissioner, who is one of Alaska’s six members on that 11-member federal council. “If we’d instituted one, we may just be saving a bunch of Asian hatchery chum salmon,” he said.
Around 3 billion hatchery chum are now released annually into the North Pacific Ocean, and they may be overtaxing the resources and depleting food sources needed by Alaska-based salmon, according to some theories.
“They’re using the eastern Bering Sea as a pastureland to fatten up and go back to Asia and to get caught,” Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, a trade group of more than 60 trawlers, told the task force on Wednesday.
Though the science on the subject is preliminary, there is some evidence to back up the hypothesis. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey used modeling to find that a big increase in the population of adult hatchery chum was linked to a 72% decline of wild Norton Sound chum. A later study, published in 2018, considered all hatchery salmon in the North Pacific Ocean and found that about 60% of the chum salmon in the North Pacific between 1990 and 2015 was of hatchery origin, with Japanese hatcheries dominant.
To others, the Asian hatchery fish are proverbial red herrings.
Focusing on hatchery fish does not address the disproportionate nature of the suffering endured by western Alaska subsistence fishers, said Lindsey Bloom of SalmonState, another environmental group. “The solutions that are being presented by the bycatch commission are not addressing the problem, which is equity,” she said.
“We see it as something that’s an injustice, something that’s unfair,” Martin Nicolai, a subsistence fisherman from the Kuskokwim River village of Kwethluk, said in online testimony Wednesday. “It’s hitting our hearts. It’s hurting our hearts.”
As long as subsistence fishers are denied access to salmon in their rivers, trawlers should face the same fate, he said. He called for a five-year moratorium on Bering Sea trawling. “As we are talking, the destruction is continuing,” he said. “You don’t need more studies and studies for decades and years.”
Western Alaska salmon runs are not the only concern of the task force. It is examining bycatch issues for all commercially important fish, including crab and halibut, in both the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.
Bycatch of crab in particular is gaining more attention because Bering Sea crab stocks have crashed. On Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that there will be no fishing allowed in the 2022-23 seasons for Bering Sea snow crab or Bristol Bay red king crab, two of the major Alaska crab harvests.
Among the recommendations for the Gulf of Alaska is that trawl fisheries there be reformulated into a quota-share system, which the industry refers to as “rationalization,” to encourage more careful harvest practices. Such quota systems are widely used for other Alaska fisheries, with shareholders assigned predetermined amounts of fish they are allowed to harvest over specific seasons. But the trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska, which mostly target pollock, remain on a system that allows all permitted participants to catch whatever amounts they can up to a total fleet cap, leading to what critics say is a dangerous rush to harvest. Defenders of the current system, however, argue that a switch to quota systems would erect more barriers to participation by less-wealthy fishers.
Another Gulf of Alaska recommendation is for full observer coverage on trawlers. That is a mandate in the larger Bering sea fisheries, where NMFS-credentialed observers are on board large vessels to monitor bycatch and other fishery practices. Opponents of a Gulf of Alaska observer mandate argue that it would be too expensive for that fleet.
Whatever the task force winds up recommending, there are worries that any resulting actions on bycatch will be too slow.
“The changes we’re experiencing in the ecosystem are occurring faster than our ability to respond,” said Lauren Mitchell, a Sitka fisher who is a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s advisory panel.
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