Commercial and sport fishing interests in Alaska are no strangers to allocation battles over the resources that fuel our businesses and ways of life. It's a rare but important occasion when those of us usually on opposing sides can agree to get together to speak out for the conservation and health of the very resource we depend on. The current threat to our businesses and livelihoods we are united to address is bycatch.
On the commercial side, halibut quotas continue their downward slide leaving many in the lurch with large quota payments. Commercial salmon trollers, who take great care in delivering a quality product that demands a premium price, sit by and watch as the trawl fleet catches and wastes Chinook while dragging the bottom for fish that are valued at a nickel a pound. Setnet fisheries from Cook Inlet to the Yukon River have seen complete closures and limited openings that have resulted in the Secretary of Commerce declaring disasters in those fisheries.
Recreational and charter fishermen have been greatly curtailed in recent years with many rivers shut down completely and not meeting escapement goals. Direct users of these fish species, like ourselves, are taking massive hits in our pocketbooks due to declining stocks. The impacts to our communities and local economies due to low abundance have soared into the millions. Yet, we hear time and time again how the trawl fleet cannot handle further reductions because of economic impacts, while we endure them firsthand. It is hard to accept this rationale and the mismatch in management.
For many years, individual fishermen and groups have come before the council and asked that bycatch be lowered. The council has responded with some measures that have proved beneficial, but more must be done.
For example, there currently is no limit to how many chinook can be taken as bycatch in non-pollock trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. This is unacceptable. The council is currently considering a bycatch cap ranging between 5,000 and 12,500 chinook and will take action to address this critical issue at the June 3-11 meeting in Juneau. If you are unable to attend the meeting, you can let the council know that a meaningful cap on chinook bycatch in Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawl fisheries must be put in place by submitting comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline to submit comments is Tuesday, May 28.
While a comprehensive bycatch plan is moving forward that may help to end the race for fish in the Gulf, we know there are things that can and must be done to reduce the impact of bycatch now.
The State of Alaska has a tremendous stake in the future health of our salmon resources, and can be a strong voice for cleaner fishing and bycatch reduction. The state has a seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and should use that wisely as a voice for the people and our local industries that are suffering and are demanding a reduction in waste. The Alaska Legislature can also help by giving a voice to the people that are unable to invest the time and money into traveling to council meetings to testify.
In this year's session of the Alaska Legislature, Sen. Peter Micciche of Soldotna introduced and successfully passed SR5, a resolution urging the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to work to reduce Chinook bycatch in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. This resolution was co-sponsored by a dozen other senators and passed unanimously.
Ultimately, bycatch decisions will rest with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Yet, the state can wield influence by weighing in both on the Council as a voting member, and through the voice of our Legislature. A strong state voice will help see that these critical decisions take into consideration the needs of many user groups, not just a few well-represented fleets. Alaskans who depend on fisheries need both the state and the council's help in preserving their livelihoods.
Kip Thomet has been a commercial fisherman in Kodiak for 30 years. He is active in the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, the Northwest Setnetters Association and on the Kodiak Advisory Committee to the Board of Fish and Game. David Bayes owns and operates the charter vessel Grand Aleutian at Deepstrike Sportfishing LLC. He is president of the Alaska Charter Association and a member of the Homer Advisory Committee to the Board of Fish and Game.