Business/Economy

Opinion: Alaska task force investigating fisheries bycatch has a big, complicated task ahead

Gotta give the Dunleavy administration credit for being the first to try to get to the bottom of one of Alaska’s most troubling fishing issues: bycatch.

The governor in November created the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force (ABRT) “to help better understand unintended bycatch of high value fishery resources in state and federal waters.”

He defined bycatch as “fish which are harvested in a fishery but are not sold or kept.”

The 13-member group will issue a final report based on those better understandings in November 2022.

“Once the structure of the task force is framed, it will be a good road map of how we can incorporate everyday Alaskans’ voices into the decision-making process,” said Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in announcing the ABRT, “because they are the owners of these resources.”

Since January the ABRT has met online three times and formed four committees and subcommittees focusing on 1) science, technology, and innovation; 2) Western Alaska salmon; 3) Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska crab; and 4) Gulf of Alaska halibut and salmon.

A new public page launched last week at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s site includes the agendas, minutes and audio from all meetings. The reference library also provides presentations by state and federal managers and an overview of genetic stock identification of salmon taken as bycatch in Alaska’s groundfish fisheries.

All fisheries are plagued by accidental takes of unwanted species, due to size or being out of season or on a fishing gear’s “can’t catch” list. It includes multimillions of tons of fish and crab that are required by law to be discarded every year.

There is no denying that the trawl sector bears the brunt of the bycatch burden. There is no denying they hate tossing fish over the side as much as any other fisherman.

Alaskans have been angry and frustrated by the federally required waste for decades, but it took last summer’s shutdown of the Yukon River subsistence chum salmon fishery to really get people’s attention.

While village smokehouses and freezers stayed empty, trawlers had no limits on their chum bycatch and went about business as usual. “We have to communicate directly with affected communities,” said ABRT member Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) at the March 9 meeting. “That’s something we have to think about as we develop a product - how we’re going to have two-way communications with the folks that have gotten us to this point where we have a bycatch working group in the first place.”

Providing information that “Everyday Alaskans” can understand is critical, said ABRT vice-chair Tommy Sheridan.

“How can Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska bycatch reports be more readily available and simplified for public review and understanding?” he said as an example.

Sincerely, good luck with that.

Federal catch accounting is easily available and impressively inclusive. But the data and reports contain a befuddling mishmash of metrics, acronyms and descriptions that are tough to interpret, like this definition:

“Bycatch = Discarded fish. Economic discards: fish harvested which could be legally retained, but are of insufficient value to retain. Regulatory discards: fish harvested which are required by regulation to be discarded whenever caught, or are required by regulation to be retained but not sold. Prohibited Species Catch (PSC): A special type of regulatory discard that must be returned to sea with a minimum of injury = Pacific halibut, herring, salmon, steelhead, king crab, bairdi, opilio crab.”

At least two “listening sessions” are planned “where all we do is take public comments,” said ABTR member Stephanie Madsen, director of the At-Sea Processors Association.

The “owners of these resources” will be “incorporating their voices” and asking lots of questions.

Why, for example, are crab considered as “Prohibited Species Catch” in the Bering Sea but not in the Gulf?

And why do managers use a different mix of crab numbers and pounds that don’t add up in bycatch reports?

Why are “other salmon” (chum) considered as PSC but have no assigned caps?

If a PSC cap is reached, managers say, a fishery will be shut down. But when Bering Sea trawlers neared their herring cap in 2020, it was quickly doubled by emergency action.

Why were trawlers allowed to exceed their sablefish bycatch limits by 356% and 484% in back to back years, topping 11 million pounds?

What are PSQ and CDQ and COBLZ in weekly bycatch updates?

And why is there almost no public information or data on bycatch in state fisheries (out to three miles)?

Member Brian Gabriel, City of Kenai mayor, stressed at the meeting that “this work group was formed because of public outrage at things that may or may not be accurate.”

“We’re going to spend some time over the next several months providing information that’s more accurate on what’s actually going on and some possible solutions,” Gabriel added. “If we don’t have a way of getting information out, what we’re doing will have very little value to the folks that are the most concerned.”

Board of Fisheries meets with an empty seat – The state Board of Fisheries is meeting through March 22 in Anchorage, minus one member. By March 11 Gov. Mike Dunleavy had not named a replacement for Indy Walton, who resigned in December. Alaska law states that an appointment must be made in 30 days, but “the seat is vacant until an appointment is made,” said spokesman Jeff Turner. The Fish Board is addressing subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fishery proposals for Southeast and Yakutat.

Meanwhile, Dunleavy nominated Nicole Kimball and Angela Drobnica to seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Kimball, who is vice president and fisheries policy analyst for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, was selected for a second three-year term.

Drobnica is director of fisheries and government affairs for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association and a member of the council’s Advisory Panel.

Drobnica will replace Cora Campbell, CEO of Silver Bay Seafoods, if the nominations are approved by the U.S. Commerce Secretary. The terms begin in August.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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