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Fishery council chair's response to bycatch criticism snagged bottom

Joe Macinko
OPINION: When it comes to reducing trawler bycatch, there's apparently good money to be made in prolonging the problem. Kathy Hough, NOAA photo

The outgoing chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Eric Olson, has responded to my commentary "Canada's trawlers drastically cut bycatch, why can't Alaska's?" In his response, he says I have ignored all the good work done by the council in the way of bycatch reduction.

Rather than refute my claims, several of the statements, misdirections and omissions he makes serve to illustrate my points.

While trawl bycatch reduction is problematic for many species, I will limit my remarks to halibut, which I am most familiar with.

First a few facts. Over 20 years ago the governments of the U.S. and Canada signed an agreement to reduce trawl bycatch mortality by 50 percent. In a couple of years Canada reduced its trawl bycatch mortality 85 percent. We did nothing. Then a representative from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans gave a presentation to the North Pacific Management Council on how this was accomplished. Again we did nothing.

As an example of good work I had overlooked, Mr. Olson says: "In 2012, the council acted to reduce the amount of halibut that could be taken as bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska trawl and longline fisheries to provide additional halibut for directed fisheries and for conservation purposes."

What he does not say is that the council, which he chaired, also reduced observer coverage on trawlers from 30 percent to 15 percent. That rewards trawlers for "gaming" the system, fishing clean, safe tows while observed and then behaving totally differently and fishing dirty when unobserved. This renders the bycatch reduction Mr. Olson cites as an illusion -- nothing more than a reduction on paper, not in the ocean.

So back to the 20 years and no action. I did misspeak; the council has actually made things worse.

Mr. Olson also speaks of launching a process "to convert management of trawl fisheries from a competitive race for fish into a cooperative structure where vessels have the ability to fish slowly, strategically, and cooperatively. This type of management system allows vessels to share information about bycatch hotspots and incentivizes gear modifications and behavior to avoid bycatch."

Twenty years and we are getting ready to launch? The Canadians gave the council this strategy long ago.

Mr. Olson then encourages "all stakeholders who have an interest in these issues to engage in the council process. The council holds five public meetings a year, and input from the public who rely on the resources the council manages is critical to good decision making."

Let me get this straight. For twenty years the NPFMC has ignored an agreement signed by two NATIONS, and I'm expected to believe my input would do something other than just allow the lobbyists who run the council to say they considered my input? Assuming the "launch" goes well, I have better things to do for the next two decades.

And finally I found it curious that he represents himself as "a native of Dillingham, (who) has fished salmon commercially and for subsistence use, and served as chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for the last seven years."

The Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association lists Eric Olson as "Director of Offshore Fisheries." This is a Community Development Quota (CDQ) group, and that title indicates he is in charge of their trawl and factory trawl vessels. The 2013 YDFDA Annual Report lists Mr. Olson's annual compensation as $142,660, and the 2012 report lists it as $178,000.

Mr. Olson lets us know that the council is "committed to continue addressing bycatch issues in the Gulf" and "this council takes its mandate to reduce bycatch to the extent practicable very seriously"? I doubt whether anyone who fishes halibut, whether commercially, for sport or subsistence can take any comfort from these statements.

If you are not part of the solution there is good money to be made prolonging the problem.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.