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We need an Alaska-first majority on North Pacific fishery council

Alaska first. It's time.

Those are words I can get behind, especially when it comes to our fish.

You say fish and Alaska in the same sentence and you probably think salmon. For good reason. We have the best managed salmon fishery in the world. We benefit from it: jobs, taxes, abundant economic activity any way you care to measure it, and the gastronomic nirvana that is my dad's smoked sockeye salmon.

But let's move farther offshore, away from the salmon. Now we're talking halibut and black cod. Or other species that sound (and look) progressively more weird: gray cod, pollock, arrowtooth flounder, and on and on.

These are federal fisheries. You know how we moan about Alaska's land being locked up by the feds? Forget the land. Let's talk about the ocean: Anything more than 3 nautical miles from Alaska's coast is federal water. That means the feds manage our fish — halibut, black cod, pollock, etc.

Salmon are worth a lot of money ($1.4 billion annually). Alaska's halibut, black cod, pollock, and other deep-water species are worth a crazy amount of money: $2.7 billion. Just $2.7 billion swimming around out there, 3-plus nautical miles from our shore. Yet we never hear anything about this $2.7 billion resource. Or who gets to call the shots.

Ever heard of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council? Neither have most other normal people.

The North Pacific council (because "NPFMC" sounds like a noise you make at the dentist) calls the shots when it comes to our halibut, our cod, or king crab. Its members cut up the $2.7 billion pie. They are really, really important.

"They" are the 11 voting members serving on the council. Six are Alaskans. The other five represent Washington, Oregon, and the federal government.

Six on five? In hockey they call that a power play. But "power" is hardly the word I think of when I think of Alaska and the council. For decades, the largely Seattle-based trawl fleet has run roughshod over Alaska, the interests of our coastal communities, our economy and the conservation of our fishery resources.

Bear with me as I temporarily lapse into fish-speak, but this laundry list of fisheries management woes is something to behold:

• Over 9 million pounds of halibut and salmon continue to be killed every year as trawl bycatch. This dead waste of a natural resource has continued for 30 years.

• Only 20 percent of the trawler trips in the Gulf of Alaska were observed last year.

• Inflexible, slow, and expensive implementation of electronic monitoring and the "observer alternative" for small, often family-run Alaska fishing boats.

• Council decisions, such as the quota allocations to Seattle-based fishing companies (the Amendment 80 fleet), have inequitably benefited Washington fishing companies to the detriment of the Alaska fishing communities.

• Fewer Alaska fishing jobs and less economic benefit for Alaskans.

Translation: Alaska has not come first.

How in the world does this happen? Six Alaska reps on the 11-member council, right?

It's a sad story -- if one Alaska rep crosses over, Alaska loses. It happens too often. It's politics. It happens. But it has got to stop.

On Sunday, Gov. Walker will nominate candidates for two of Alaska's seats on the council. The seats of Dan Hull and Ed Dersham are up for nomination.

Alaska First. It's time.

We need to make halibut and king salmon bycatch a footnote to fisheries history. We need to make sure Alaska's fisheries foremost benefit Alaskans, our communities and our economy. We need an "Alaska-first" council delegation. It's time.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2013.

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

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