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Bycatch a problem that just won't go away for Southcentral Alaska fisheries

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

Incidental harvest of thousands of Chinook salmon in Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries is an issue that just won't go away, simmering before federal fisheries managers as debate continues over whether a catch share program would solve the problem.

Final action on Gulf of Alaska king salmon bycatch in non-pollock trawl fisheries is scheduled for the June 3-11 meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at Juneau, as well as the initial review of discussion papers on Gulf trawl bycatch management and Gulf trawl data collection. The federal council also is working on a Gulf trawl catch share program.

Some area fishermen want full observer coverage of all trawl vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, as well as full retention of all fish caught incidentally. As a result, millions of pounds of fish caught incidentally to the directed harvest would be processed for food, rather than thrown back dead into the ocean, they contend.

The 25,000 cap on Chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf pollock fishery approved by the council went into effect in August 2012, but the Alaska Marine Conservation Council noted that other trawl fisheries in the Gulf also caught king salmon as bycatch while targeting flatfish, cod and rockfish. In 2010, these other Gulf trawl fisheries caught nearly 10,000 Chinook salmon as bycatch, AMCC said.

At COMFISH Alaska 2013 on April 11 at Kodiak, panelists discussed the prospect of a catch share program underway for Gulf groundfish trawlers and pot cod boats.

"The council has long understood that bycatch will not improve in a race for fish scenario," said Nicole Kimball, federal fisheries coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

There is less inventive in a limited access fishery, she said.

"We are reviewing the (discussion) paper in June, getting public testimony, and we may get program proposals from people and hopefully they are getting more specific," Kimball said. The council has to consider many provisions before coming forth with any program, including bycatch reduction through management, and must recognize harvester, processor and community interests, she said.

Council member Duncan Fields, a Kodiak fish harvester, attorney and consultant on fisheries issues, said there are many questions still unanswered about how catch shares would work in the Gulf of Alaska for groundfish trawlers and pot cod boats.

"The goal of catch shares is to minimize bycatch … but how about the impact on other fisheries?" he asked. "Impacts in one fishery affect other fisheries."

Who will get the fish and why, how about fishermen who fish dirty, and should there be a distribution to non-fishermen, are some other unanswered questions, he asked. Fields said the council must also consider what access rights would be given to the resource, issues regarding consolidation, transfers and transfer caps, and leasing, plus affects on jobs, infrastructure and opportunities for communities.

Jeff Stephan, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association, raised the issue of the control date approved for the Western Gulf of Alaska during the council's February meeting in Portland, Ore. Any catch history by the trawl fleet after that date may not be credited in any future allocation system developed for the Western Gulf trawl fishery, the council noted.

UFMA's members include vessel owners and operators who participate in the Central Gulf federal, parallel and state waters Pacific cod pot fisheries.

In testimony at the Portland meeting, Stephan urged that the council's discussion paper on the Central Gulf catch share program be expanded to include consideration of a catch share program for the Central Gulf's cod pot fleet.

Such an expanded discussion paper would outline various catch share options, as well as consideration and enumeration of the economic, social, cultural and community impacts, costs and benefits that would result from the ongoing development and ultimate implementation of an exclusive trawl-only catch share program, and that would bear upon the pot cod and longline sectors, the labor force and support businesses in Gulf coastal communities, he said.

The council did at that February meeting initiate analysis of a focused data collection program that can be established prior to implementation of a trawl bycatch management program in the Gulf. The council asked staff for an expanded discussion paper on several issues related to a Gulf trawl catch share program.

The council has not yet, however, addressed the issue of more fishing vessels coming into the Gulf to establish catch history for a trawl catch share program.

Margaret Bauman is a reporter with The Cordova Times. Used with permission.