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Call the king salmon taken by Cook Inlet setnetters what it is: bycatch

Craig Medred
Setnetters working not far from the mouth of the Kenai River. State of Alaska photo

When comes the time to call a spade a spade?

As a reporter, I have for years consciously avoided using the term "bycatch" when referring to the king salmon caught by commercial set netters in Alaska’s Cook Inlet off the mouth of the Kenai River. Bycatch is, as a Kenai radio reporter Catie Quinn points out, "a hot-button word."

I'd hate to say I wimped out and used an obsequious phrase -- "incidental catch" -- to avoid a hot-button word.

What is bycatch? Here is the generally accepted definition of the term that first began popping up in common usage in the late 1990s:

"The term "bycatch" is usually used for fish caught unintentionally in a fishery while intending to catch other fish. It may however also indicate untargeted catch in other forms of animal harvesting or collecting. Bycatch is of a different species, undersized individuals of the target species, or juveniles of the target species."

Here is what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses as its definition: "Discarded catch of any living marine resource plus retained incidental catch and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing gear." 

This would make both king salmon, a "retained incidental catch," and starry flounder, a "discarded catch," bycatch in those eastside Cook Inlet setnet fisheries that target Kenai sockeye salmon.

But, the Alaska media -- myself included -- has for years soft-pedaled this bycatch as an "incidental harvest." When I decided to call it what it is, Quinn called me on it.

She shot off an email saying she "just wanted to point out that kings are not 'bycatch' for set netters.

"'Bycatch' indicates it's a species which the fishermen isn't really supposed to catch. Set netters are permitted to catch all five species of salmon and sell them. They have a legal right to catch the kings. It's certainly not their priority, but it's not a 'deadly' accident or overreach as it's being described."

She was undeterred by a response detailing the definition of "bycatch," or the explanation that the trawlers fishing in the Gulf of Alaska also have "a legal right to the kings" and halibut and their various other bycatch fish. Trawlers are not prohibited from catching those fish. They simply operate under limits for some and are forbidden from selling others.

Some of the latter they dump back in the ocean to feed scavengers. Some of it they are required to keep and donate to charity.

Setnetters are somewhat lucky that in their case king salmon bycatch falls in a category the NOAA calls "retained incidental catch." The setnetters can make money off the bycatch Quinn quite pointedly does not like to see called bycatch.

"This is a very important word to the 450-odd families who have sites here," she said. "They're not arguing that they want to catch kings, but the term 'bycatch' paints a picture of a clumsy fishermen who just can't help killing everything in his path. Socially, they don't desire to catch kings. Legally, they are entitled to."

Legally, so are the trawlers regularly maligned in this state, and nobody has ever suggested dumping the term "bycatch" when referring to their incidental harvests, which have nothing whatsoever to do with their being "clumsy fishermen."

Time for a change?

Clumsy fishing has nothing to do with any of this. The problem for both trawlers and setnetters is that they fish with indiscriminate gear. It can't tell one fish from another, and it doesn't allow them to separate still live fish after the catch so they can keep the ones they want and release the others unharmed.

All of this could be changed in Cook Inlet. Setnets could be replaced with fish traps, which would allow commercial fishermen to keep the sockeye they want and allow them to release kings unharmed. But fish traps are frowned upon in Alaska because they were used here by Seattle-dominated fishing businesses before statehood.

Still, there are other possible technological solutions. Someone might be able to invent a floating fishwheel, a form of gear favored in Alaska, to scoop up salmon passing offshore, hold them for sorting, and allow for the retention of sockeyes and the release of kings. There are even some indications that the setnet fishery might be restructured so that only nets floating on tides that allowed them to drift high enough to permit kings to pass beneath would be fished, but the setnetters have historically resisted any attempts at experimenting with ways to make their fishery cleaner.

The result is that a group of anglers and personal-use dipnetters this week announced they were essentially going nuclear. They are starting a drive to get the signatures on a petition aimed at getting voters to ban setnets off the mouth off the Kenai and near other urban areas. 

They might just succeed. Similar efforts in other states have succeeded. That would be a disaster for the people who now fish commercially on the Inlet beaches. I'd hate to see it happen.

The bottom line

But here's the rub: Kenai kings are in danger. Grave danger. The number of fish reaching the spawning beds this year, despite the harvest of less than 1,600 fish in the sport fishery and none in the dipnet fishery, was the lowest on record. The reasons why are unknown. But no matter those reasons, all scientists agree you don't get back to the days of bounty by ignoring spawning goals and continuing to fish as if everything is normal when runs are in serious decline.

Everything is not normal on the Kenai. Anglers, who support a thriving Kenai tourism industry, are likely to go for years now with only minimal or no opportunities to fish kings. Dipnetters are unlikely to be allowed to keep one of the big fish for years as well.

And in this situation, the setnet fishery cannot continue to kill thousands as bycatch. The nets this year killed almost twice as many kings as the in-river, rod-and-reel fishery that supports a multi-million dollar tourism industry. There is now an undeniable problem with bycatch.

"It's a hot-button word in the fishing community, because it divides those who feel setnetters have a traditional and legal right to fish from those who feel that setnetters are a 'dinosaur' from a less responsible time," Quinn argues.

Yes, it is a hot-button word. But journalists can't shy away from such words just because they are hot.

"Bob Penney (of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association) reasonably argues that bycatch should be a four-letter word," she continued. "That should not have anything to do with the argument about Cook Inlet set netters. They are legally just as entitled to kings as any sports fisherman, though they don't have the desire to take that 'right.'"

Well, we have a four-letter situation on the Kenai these days, and setnetters -- whether they desire to take the right or not -- are taking that right. They are killing thousands of kings as bycatch. And it's time to call it what it is because, in the interests of the fish, it can't go on.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com