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Canada's trawlers drastically cut bycatch, why can't Alaska's?

Joe Macinko
OPINION: The massive trawl by-catch of species on which so many Alaskans depend is not an unavoidable consequence of trawling. It's bad management by design. It's time for Alaskans to put and end to it.
NOAA / Kris Cieciel

Sometimes there's big money to be made prolonging a problem. One short sentence sums up nearly 20 years of work by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on trawl bycatch.

Since way back in the 1990s, when newspapers were just starting to take to the Internet, we've been told that the massive waste of large numbersĀ  of undersize halibut, king and tanner crab, king salmon and even small cod and pollock are an unavoidable consequence of trawling, and since our state and local economies are dependent on the trawl fishery, nothing can be done.

During the February 1997 meeting of the NPFMC a representative from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans gave a presentation on how that country reduced trawl bycatch while catching ALL of its trawl quota.

The Canadians went from 2 million pounds of halibut bycatch mortality to slightly under 300,000 pounds of halibut bycatch mortality in just one year. And they didn't have to sacrifice a single pound of directed trawl catch in doing so.

If that kind of a reduction is possible with no reduction in trawl landings, what is with the never-ending line we've been fed for so long that trawlers "need that bycatch to prosecute our fishery"?

As it turns out, the answer is simple. The trawl industry would rather have the rest of us pay for dirty work with millions of pounds of wasted resources than expect it to pay the price to clean up the fishery. The Canadians were willing to make trawlers pay to protect the resource. U.S. regulators just don't give a damn.

And that's costing all of us. All Alaskans suffer an economic loss when resources are wasted.

Let's say the Canadian trawlers are better fishermen than our guys, and we can only achieve a 50 percent reduction in bycatch instead of the 85 percent reduction the Canucks got. How many millions of pounds of halibut would still be swimming? How many more hours of processing work would have been done over 20 years if some or all of those wasted fish had been allowed to mature so they could be harvested by halibut sport and commercial fishermen? How much additional state and local taxes would have been generated?

We will never know because the trawl lobbyists that run the NPFMC have decided that they would rather have you and IĀ  pay the price and pocket the benefit themselves.

The Canadians took a different approach. They gave each trawl boat 12 months to catch its quotas, set a weekly bycatch cap for a number of species, ordered 100 percent observer coverage on the boats, and said "go fish."

If a boat went over its bycatch cap for the week, it was done for the year.

The Canadians imposed no gear restrictions, recognizing the fishermen are better at gear modification than any bureaucrat or professor.

The 12-month season allowed fishermen to find periods when target species were segregated and catch them with minimum bycatch of non-target species.

Their boat-by-boat bycatch limit rewarded the cleanest fishermen - unlike our fleet-wide cap, which rewards the dirtiest ones.

Their 100 percent observer coverage kept trawlers honest; our 15 percent coverage encourages our fishermen to game the system. Our trawlers fish safe tows while observed and behave totally differently and fish dirty when unobserved. The bycatch numbers our observer program generates are worthless and do not reflect what the real waste is.

The massive trawl bycatch of species on which so many Alaskans depend is not an unavoidable consequence of trawling. It's bad management by design. It's time for Alaskans to put and end to it.

We can tell the trawl industry to pay the price, which is not all that high, to get the destructive potential of their fishery in check. Or we can continue to let them waste the resources that are our future.

Joe Macinko has fished commercially since 1980 out of Kenai, Kodiak, Sand Point and Dutch Harbor. He lives in Kodiak now.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.