Peltola sponsors a bill to limit salmon bycatch. The pollock industry calls it ‘unworkable.’

Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola introduced two bills Wednesday that aim to deliver on one of her campaign themes: Reducing the number of salmon that the Bering Sea fishing fleet catches by accident.

One of the bills would curtail the use of fishing nets that scrape sensitive parts of the sea floor. It would require regional fisheries management councils to designate bottom trawl zones and limit that kind of fishing to those areas.

It also attempts to crack down on fishing gear that hits the sea floor but goes by a different name. Peltola said areas that are closed to bottom trawling off Alaska’s coast are too often open to pelagic trawling, which in theory means the nets are in the mid-water.

“I think 40 to 80% of the time, that ‘pelagic’ gear is actually on the bottom,” she said. “So I think that defining these terms and having a more accurate definition of what bottom trawl is, and the percentage of time that those nets are on the bottom, is really important.”

A second bill would increase the money available for a grant program that funds research and equipment to help fishing fleets reduce bycatch. That program would get up to $10 million per year, $7 million more than its current cap.

Peltola acknowledges that her bills are unlikely to become law this year. But she said they elevate the national discourse on fish. And, she said, the pollock industry is starting to get the message and is taking voluntary measures to avoid salmon. She credits, among other things, her own election for a recent drop in bycatch.

“The fact that Alaskans elected a member of the congressional delegation who ran on a platform of fishing and bycatch — that fact alone has really caught the attention of many in the industry,” she said. “Fifty percent of bycatch has been reduced, especially when it comes to chum salmon.”


It shows, she said, that the industry can make improvements.

The Alaska Pollock Fishery Alliance says the bottom trawling bill would impose “unworkable and burdensome new federal mandates on regional decision-makers.”

Stephanie Madsen is executive director the At-Sea Processors Association, which is part of the pollock alliance. She said the bill goes against the science-based approach that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council takes.

“The council has been looking at pelagic gear definitions, the enforceability, and they continue to look at that,” Madsen said. “And that’s where we think the work needs to be done.”

Organizations representing smaller-boat fishermen and subsistence users, on the other hand, have endorsed Peltola’s bills. Those organizations include the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, SalmonState and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Longline Fishermen’s Association, said Alaska fishing communities and conservationists have been asking the North Pacific council for years to redefine pelagic trawling in a way that limits sea-floor contact, to no avail. Even if the bills don’t become law, Behnken says they help.

“I think they certainly send a strong message that Rep. Peltola is hearing concerns from Alaskans and is providing direction to councils to take action to address those concerns,” Behnken said.

Originally published by Alaska Public Media and republished with permission.