Opinions

The cost of a fish sandwich: Why we need to reduce bycatch by Alaska’s trawl fleet

For decades, the North Pacific trawl fleet has dumped millions of pounds of salmon, halibut, sablefish and crab while targeting pollock, sole and flounder. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, or NPFMC, which works under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aka NOAA, has allowed this to happen; and has facilitated this waste by allowing various sectors of the trawl fleet to exceed bycatch limits, or by raising bycatch caps in-season, to prevent a trawl shut-down.

Much of the bycatch — dead marine life tossed overboard — is much more valuable, pound for pound, than the fish being targeted.

Many fish and crab stocks in the North Pacific Ocean are in a precipitous downward spiral and the thousands of Alaskans who depend on a healthy and productive marine/ocean environment for food or income have seen their ability to harvest salmon, halibut, sablefish and crab decimated.

Because of the scale of harvest involved in the trawl fisheries, 100% observer coverage should be required of every vessel and each tow made. Yet observer coverage for much of the fleet is nowhere near the 100% threshold. For example, trawl captains in the Gulf of Alaska are allowed to “self-report” their bycatch 85% of the time — their observer coverage is only 15%.

It is hard to imagine that a fisheries management scenario like this even exists in U.S. waters. These issues are the type which we would expect from a foreign pirate fleet, but not from a U.S. fleet which is monitored and regulated by the Department of Commerce, NOAA and the NPFMC.

Effectively, the NPFMC is broken.

[Special report: ‘We’ve never seen this before’ — Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives]

We see individuals with ties to the trawl industry being appointed to the NPFMC by Alaska’s governor, after their company made significant campaign contributions during an election year. We can no longer be sure governors will appoint NPFMC members whose sole interest is managing in the interests of their state’s resource/environmental sustainability. Many fear that the appointment of NPFMC members has become little more than an auction to the highest bidder.

In real time, we are witnessing the collapse of numerous fish and crab stocks in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The Department of Commerce and NOAA must take immediate action to stop the environmental destruction of these areas and the immoral waste of fish/crab which the present system perpetuates.

The following actions should be required:

1. Trawling should be stopped until significantly reduced bycatch levels have been established. No exceptions or revisions.

2. Bottom trawling should not resume until a thorough review of the impacts to the ecosystem of the ocean floor has been completed.

3. 100% observer monitoring must be initiated on vessels conducting trawl operations in the western Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

4. Reporting of all non-targeted fish bycatch must be accessible to the public in a simple format online. Reports must include birds, marine mammals and other incidental catch which occurred during the reported timeframe.

5. The appointment process of NPFMC members by the governors of Alaska and Washington must be altered to reduce the risk of “selling of seats” and include a public participation process to ensure unbiased selection of highly qualified board members. Additionally, board seats representing Indigenous/conservation interests must be added.

The history of trawling is replete with examples of environmental destruction and fisheries stock collapse. We are witnessing this again in the western Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The NPFMC appears to be complicit in and facilitating this disaster. Salmon, halibut, sablefish, crab and the people of Alaska are all paying the price of this gross mismanagement. It is time for action by the Department of Commerce, NOAA, and NPFMC.

Krystalynn Nasisaq Scott is Yup’ik and a tribal member of Akiachak Native Community of the Kuskokwim River. She is a granddaughter of the late Traditional Tribal Chief Joseph Uyaquq Lomack of AVCP. Nasisaq currently teaches advanced high school mathematics in Anchorage and holds degrees in mathematics and education. Nasisaq helps with traditional subsistence fishing every summer.

David Bayes holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and education, and was born and raised in Homer, Alaska, where he began working in the sport and commercial fishing industries at age 12.

Michael Kampnich has lived in Craig for 36 years and is a commercial fisherman. He has crewed or run his own vessel fishing salmon and halibut for more than 30 years. He is currently a member of the Craig City Council.

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