Opinions

OPINION: Federal management is failing the Bering Sea

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The Bering Sea ecosystem is in crisis. Salmon, halibut and crab stocks are in steep decline, and people who rely on them to put up food for the winter or as income are being asked to do without. Meanwhile, for the largest, most wasteful and most politically connected fishery in Alaska’s cold, northern waters, it’s business as usual.

The trawl fishing fleet, which is regulated by the federal government and homeported mostly in Seattle, fishes for pollock, sole, cod and flounder by dragging football-field-sized nets through the water. Those nets catch everything in their path. King salmon. Chum salmon. Snow crab. Halibut. Red king crab. Even marine mammals like killer whales, seals and sea lions. When trawl nets scrape the bottom, they dredge the fragile ocean floor, destroying coral and essential habitat for crab and other species.

The trawl fishery has made billions selling pollock for McDonald’s fish sandwiches, Long John Silver’s filets, frozen fish sticks and fake crab. Their well-oiled machine will no doubt respond to this. Like the tobacco industry, they’ve hired lobbyists and funded academics to twist facts, deploy selectively chosen statistics, and downplay the trawl industry’s impacts on Alaska’s fish and waters. Those misdirections mask an important truth: at the same time small-boat and traditional Alaska Native fishermen are prevented from fishing to preserve stocks, the trawl fleet is catching and killing enormous numbers of these same species.

While crabbers stay home, prohibited from catching snow crab, the National Marine Fisheries Service has allowed the Bering Sea Aleutian Island pollock fishery trawl fleet to kill up to 4.35 million snow crab for the 2022-23 season.

Resident fishermen of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have for multiple years been severely limited from harvesting chum salmon, which compromises their food security and ways of life. But the federal government sets no limit on the number of chum salmon the trawl fleet can catch and dump overboard. In 2021, Bering Sea trawlers caught 546,043 chum salmon. Through genetic studies, scientists determined that 9.4% of those salmon originated in Western Alaska and the Yukon River. That’s 51,510 chum salmon that could have returned to repopulate dangerously low runs.

As Alaska Native and small-boat fishermen are prohibited from catching king salmon, the Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet is allowed to kill 45,000 of these highly valuable fish, vital to traditional ways of life.

For decades, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — which is meeting Dec. 8-14 in Anchorage — has allowed various sectors of the trawl fleet to exceed bycatch limits. It has also raised bycatch limits during the season to prevent a trawl fleet shutdown. Bycatch dumped back overboard dead by the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska trawl fleets has totaled approximately 141 million pounds of salmon, halibut, crab, sablefish and other species per year over the past 10 years. In just seven years, this adds up to approximately 1 billion pounds of fish, crab and other marine resources. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars — and much more in a non-monetary sense — lost to subsistence, sport and commercial Alaska fishermen.

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A recent study showed that “pelagic” or midwater trawlers are on the bottom far more than they’re supposed to be, frequently in areas closed to bottom trawling and directed fishermen in order to conserve low populations of species like Bristol Bay red king crab.

We are willing to forgo fishing to rebuild the resource for our children and grandchildren. But instead of seeing our fisheries recover, we are watching Bering Sea fishery managers facilitate their collapse for the benefit of the trawl fleet.

Outcry over the wanton waste of the trawl industry and the blatant lack of equity in management has united Alaskans. We have called on the federal government to significantly reduce or eliminate trawl bycatch, and ensure that smal- boat and Alaska Native fishermen do not disproportionately bear the burden of conservation.

It’s time for better documentation of the trawl fleet’s effect on marine species, habitats and Alaska coastal communities; for Alaska’s first peoples to be centered in fisheries management; for significant reductions to and meaningful caps on the trawl fleet’s bycatch; for closure of sensitive areas to trawling; for equity in fisheries management; and for the Bering Sea to be managed not as a series of disconnected parts, but as what it is: an ecosystem.

It’s time for a sea change in the management of the Bering Sea.

Gloria Simeon, Yup’ik, is a member of the Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council and a resident of Bethel.

Michael Kampnich is a commercial fisherman and lifelong outdoorsman.

Joshua Songstad is a Bering Sea crab skipper and fourth-generation Alaska commercial fisherman.

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