Nowhere do people have as much opportunity to speak their minds to fish policymakers as in Alaska. And as a key decision day approaches, a groundswell of Alaska voices is demanding that fishery overseers slash the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.
Many Alaskans are speaking out against the more than 6 million pounds of halibut dumped overboard each year as bycatch in trawl fisheries targeting flounder, rockfish, perch, mackerel and other groundfish -- not pollock.
Bycatch levels set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council have not changed for 20 years for the so-called "Amendment 80" fleet of 28 Seattle-based trawlers. At the same time, halibut catches for commercial, sport and subsistence users have been slashed for 14 consecutive years due to stock depletion and small fish.
The council will decide on cutting the halibut bycatch level by up to 50 percent when it meets the week of June 1 in Sitka.
Federal data show that the multibillion-pound trawl fisheries discarded seven times more halibut in 2014 than were landed by fishermen in the same Bering Sea region.
"Halibut bycatch comes off the top," said Jeff Kauffman of St. Paul, one of nearly 2,000 Alaskans holding fishing shares of the halibut stocks. Kauffman has seen his region's share of small-boat halibut catch dwindle 63 percent to less than 400,000 pounds.
"There has been a de facto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries," he said. "Conservation of the stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen."
"Alaska is the model for fishery sustainability and we should not prioritize bycatch over all the other harvests. And this is what we are seeing out in the Bering Sea," agreed Theresa Peterson of Kodiak, an outreach coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Just because the fish are caught far from mainland Alaska doesn't mean the trawlers have no impact on fishing communities, she pointed out.
"Tagging studies show clearly that a halibut born in the Bering Sea could end up virtually in any management area within a couple of years. It's a bycatch issue that affects all user groups throughout the state," Peterson said.
Data also show the average size of the halibut caught as bycatch in the Bering Sea was 4.76 pounds last year, less than half the weight of a typical 26-inch halibut. Between 70 percent and 90 percent of those smaller fish are slated to migrate out of the region when they mature.
So far, 16 Alaska groups and communities have passed resolutions or written strongly worded letters to the council, pushing for a 50 percent bycatch cut. A dozen Alaska legislators have done the same thing.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Bering Sea fleet said the current bycatch issue draws "reckless conclusions."
Those commercial fishermen have worked hard to reduce bycatch by maximizing halibut avoidance, said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum.
"Suggesting that a 50 percent reduction in bycatch is … ridiculous. There is nothing fair, equitable or reasonable in using the blunt tool of a 50 percent reallocation that could cost hard working Alaskans and fishermen hundreds of jobs, and could remove well over $100 million dollars from the state of Alaska's economy in a single year," Woodley wrote in an open letter to the industry.
"This iconic species to subsistence, commercial and sport users is too valuable to waste and we can do better," Peterson rebutted. "It has been 20 years since that bycatch level has been addressed in a meaningful way. It is absolutely time to act."
Public comments will be accepted through May 26 by email at NPFMC.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whopping salmon harvest
Alaska's 2015 salmon season officially began on Thursday with the first runs of reds and kings to the Copper River near Cordova. In the coming weeks, salmon openers will kick off across Alaska and many regional catch forecasts are up.
In all, Alaskans are bracing for a huge season -- state managers project a harvest of 221 million salmon, a whopping 39 percent higher than last year.
Driving the numbers are big forecasts for sockeye and pink salmon.
A 59 million sockeye catch is expected, a 33 percent increase and the largest harvest since 1995. About 64 percent of the statewide sockeye take is expected from Bristol Bay.
For those hard-to-predict pinks, the statewide harvest could top 140 million, a 46 percent increase. In Southeast, home to the state's largest wild pink salmon runs, the catch is pegged at 58 million fish.
Chum salmon harvests are expected to double this year to more than 17 million.
On the downside, a silver salmon harvest of 4.6 million would be a drop of nearly 2 million fish from last year.
Track daily salmon catches during the season using the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Blue Sheet.
A new, safer Vicky
Few fishermen go to sea without their Vickies -- the small, sharp Victorinox Swiss Army knife used for everything that needs a quick cut. But traditional knife sheaths point downward, and Vickies can badly poke fishermen scrambling atop huge pots used for crab or cod. To prevent injury, fishermen customarily duct tape the knives sideways to their belts.
Anne Morris of Sand Point knew there had to be a better way. She designed and made a snazzy new Vicky sheath that lies horizontally on belts.
The knife sheath topped 23 entries to win the $1,000 first place prize last month at the Aleutian Marketplace Business Idea Competition, hosted by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association and the Aleut Corp.
"A big safety issue in my presentation was it is quicker to get the knife out of the sheath with it lying horizontal," Morris said.
She credits her son, Justin Drew, a pot cod fishermen, for the winning idea and has dubbed it the JD Beltz. The competition is two-tiered and Morris now moves to a business plan phase that begins in October.
"My idea is to include the sheath, the belt and the knife as a package deal. It might change as I get further along," she said, adding that she hopes to work with a manufacturer and have the Vicky sheaths available next year.