Commentary

Trawl fleet fishery needs Alaska's help

At a time when Alaska is facing one of the biggest fiscal crises in its history, our leaders are looking to the private sector to keep our economy healthy and our communities strong. The stakes couldn't be higher where the Alaska economy is concerned.

So we find it puzzling that, despite the need to find private sector solutions, the Walker administration has embraced a solution for the federal fishing sector that could cripple one of our state's most economically successful fisheries.

In the next few days, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, led by a majority of people with no ties to Kodiak and no experience with our fishery, will be making its recommendation about the future of Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska's highly successful groundfish trawl fisheries. The Council has already imposed new restrictions on the fishery to reduce the unwanted catch of species like halibut and salmon. Additional management improvements are needed to address these conditions.

This is a watershed moment for coastal fishing towns like Kodiak, King Cove and Sand Point.

As a recently released economic study makes abundantly clear, Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries have contributed significantly, not just to the economy of Kodiak and the Gulf communities, but also to the state's economy.

The seafood industry is, in fact, Kodiak's largest basic industry by a wide margin, generating $236 million in annual labor income. Furthermore, groundfish fishing and processing accounts for approximately half of the seafood jobs (1,952), half of seafood labor income ($111 million), and half of total seafood output ($187 million) in the Kodiak economy. Most of this groundfish — 83 percent in 2014 — was harvested with trawl gear.

Why mess with this success, especially at a time when our communities need the economic stability the trawl fishery provides? But that's exactly what might happen, depending on the Council's pending recommendation on management alternatives.

On the table are proposals for changing management of Gulf trawl fisheries to provide the seafood industry mechanisms to better utilize catch and reduce bycatch. These are goals we all can agree with.

But the Walker administration is pushing an untried, unproven and unpopular scheme. Instead of helping industry improve performance and strengthen the economic benefits to Alaska coastal communities, the Walker administration is pushing measures that will encourage outside boats to enter the fishery, putting more gear in the water with no practical measures to meet conservation objectives.

These concerns have been brought up repeatedly to the administration, with no response yet from the governor. We know that Gov. Bill Walker has been working hard to solve Alaska's fiscal crisis. But we hope he will take the time to hear our concerns, and direct his administration to work with trawl fishery participants — the harvesters, processors and fishery-dependent communities that will have to live with this new management program — to come up with a practical solution to help us contribute to the economic health of our communities.

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

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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