State, council fail to help Kodiak trawl fisheries

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has a record for successful fishery management, built on principles known as the Alaska Model. Recently, the council abandoned the Alaska Model and its solid reputation for progressive fishery management. In doing so, the council failed the Gulf of Alaska trawl groundfish fisheries and our community of Kodiak.

Led by the state of Alaska, the council voted at its December meeting in Anchorage to "postpone indefinitely" any further work to address the goal of bycatch reduction through a cooperative management program for Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries. Instead, the Council ended a four-year public process to develop a program to achieve this goal. By their action, the state and the council put politics first, and the health of our fisheries and coastal communities came in dead last.

[Governor should recognize value of Alaska groundfish industry]

Seafood is Kodiak's largest basic industry by a wide margin. Groundfish (Pacific cod, pollock, flatfish and rockfish) provide more jobs and income to Kodiak than any other fishery. Most of this groundfish, 83 percent in 2014, is harvested with trawl gear as it is the only effective gear type for many of these species. Kodiak city and borough recently contracted with McDowell Group to better understand Kodiak's fishery economy. That report shows that groundfish fishing and processing has the largest economic impact of any fishery in Kodiak, accounting for about half of the seafood jobs (1,952), labor income ($111 million) and total seafood output ($187 million) in the Kodiak economy in 2014. Further analysis by the North Pacific Council confirms the high percentage of Kodiak resident captains, crew, and processing workers dependent upon these fisheries and highlights the city's continued investment in infrastructure and utilities to support fisheries which provide vital, year-round jobs and contribute to the local and state tax base.

However, challenges for managing these fisheries continue to mount. Gulf trawl fisheries operate in a race for fish under strict halibut and salmon bycatch caps that can close the fisheries well before the season's target catch is harvested. In 2016, this was about 120 days of lost harvesting and processing opportunity for Kodiak that could have been prevented. Management systems to fix this problem are being used in several other fisheries in the North Pacific. They consistently result in more fish across the dock, cleaner fishing and improved products, and significant reductions in bycatch. Like it or not, we are in a global market for fish, and the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries cannot compete under the current management system.

[Trawl fleet fishery needs Alaska's help]

The need for a new approach was underscored during the council's June meeting in Kodiak. Roughly 2,000 people attended a celebration in support of Kodiak trawl fisheries, and the overwhelming testimony by trawl fishery participants supported the need for a positive change. As a result of this outpouring of public support, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten stated several times on the record that he and the Walker/Mallott administration wanted to work with trawl fishery participants to develop an acceptable program.

Fishery participants took Cotten's offer seriously and tried to work with him to understand the state's concerns and develop policies to improve management of the Gulf trawl fisheries that would meet those concerns. Over the course of several meetings the state was unable to identify changes it wanted to consider or even acknowledge how the Gulf trawl fisheries fit into the state economy. Absent the will to solve the problem, the council voted to stop work on this issue indefinitely.

Anyone who says that this outcome supports our coastal communities, small boat fishermen or other fisheries is mistaken. It is clear that the groundfish trawl fisheries support the economies of Gulf communities like Kodiak, Sand Point and King Cove. The proposed new cooperative management system included protections for those communities and would have stabilized the fisheries they depend on. Measures for increased monitoring, individual vessel bycatch accountability, the ability to fish slower and with less impact, and reductions in halibut and salmon bycatch were also included. All of which would have benefited small-boat fishermen as well as the trawl fisheries.

This could have been a win-win for the state, the fisheries and our coastal communities. But politics won out, instead of public input or analysis, and the federal fisheries management process failed. This was not the result of a healthy and functioning public process. Rather it underscores a dramatic lack of willpower on the part of the council, and a failure of the process to tackle difficult but resolvable problems.

And our community and livelihoods will suffer for it.

Mitch Kilborn is director of operations for International Seafoods of Alaska in Kodiak. Paddy O'Donnell, a 27-year veteran fisherman, is the owner-operator of the 85-foot Kodiak trawl vessel, the Caravelle.