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Bycatch task force works to refine mission ahead of November deadline

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Hope McKenney
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KUCB
American Seafoods’ American Triumph trawl vessel in Dutch Harbor, July 2020.

The governor’s task force to review the effect of bycatch in Alaska fisheries is working to organize against its tight timeline for submitting recommendations to state and federal policymakers. It also has to balance commercial and subsistence interests.

Bycatch is when fishing vessels catch something they’re not targeting. It could be tanner crab caught in a black cod pot, or halibut scooped up in a pollock trawl net. It’s been an incendiary issue in Alaska’s fisheries for decades. Now, as stocks of crab, salmon and halibut decline, trawl fisheries have come under fire for their role, which represents the vast majority of incidental catch in and around Alaska.

The governor’s office took notice. Gov. Mike Dunleavy established a task force to review bycatch late last year with a deadline of November to submit its recommendations.

But during that time, the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force also has to establish its own priorities, break into subcommittees, and decide what it’s going to focus on before its mandate expires in just nine months. And there’s a lot of information to sort through already as it plays catch-up.

At an almost six-hour meeting Friday (February 11), the task force heard presentations from the state Department of Fish & Game, North Pacific Fishery Management Council staff, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with data and information about bycatch of many species, including salmon, crab and halibut. Task force members questioned the experts about existing bycatch data.

Kevin Delaney holds the seat on the task force designated for sport and personal use fishermen. He told his fellow task force members they need a clear focus to be effective.

“If we just start throwing data at the wall hoping something sticks, we’re just going to spend the next nine meetings doing the same darn thing that the North [Pacific Fishery Management] Council has already done and the Board of Fish has already done,” Delaney said. “We’re here because a problem has risen to the top loud enough that the governor called us together.”

Over the last year, some of the loudest voices advocating for action to reduce bycatch have come from tribal organizations in Western Alaska, in communities that have seen subsistence salmon harvests dramatically reduced, or stopped entirely.

Even early on in the task force’s process, frustrations are simmering about who’s in the loop. Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC) executive director Mary Peltola said she wasn’t notified of the meeting in advance. Public outreach fell short, she added; online portals and state public notices don’t reach the people most affected by declining fish populations.

“If there were real interest in hearing from the public, there would be a real effort put to letting the public know when and where the meeting is happening and how to provide their opinions or their feedback,” Peltola said. “The composition of the task force, the timing of the task force, one hundred percent, the task force is a campaign charade.”

KRITFC is one of several Western Alaska tribal consortiums requesting state and federal support during salmon disasters. And that’s not new: salmon runs in Western Alaska have been declining for more than a decade, and affected communities have been requesting action for just as long.

Peltola also questioned the need for a task force at all. She says the Dunleavy administration through the Alaska Department of Fish & Game already has tools to manage fisheries to give relief to struggling subsistence stocks.

“After decades of prioritizing ex-vessel value and commodifying our resources over Alaskan citizens’ own freezers, and own larders, now he’s doing a Food Security Task Force, and not including any subsistence users. That’s a total punch to the gut. It’s adding insult to injury. The bycatch issue is a food security issue,” she said, referring to the Alaska Food Security Task Force, which is separate from the Bycatch Review Task Force. Gov. Dunleavy announced the task force on food security at his State of the State speech earlier this year.

But others expressed optimism about the Bycatch Review Task Force. At its Friday meeting, the task force heard from a variety of fisheries stakeholders, including a few trawl fishery representatives, who say they’re ready for conversations.

United Catcher Boats – which represents pollock and cod trawlers – says its members are collecting data and are willing to share findings with the task force about what it’s found keeps salmon, halibut and crab out of nets.

But UCB Executive Director Brent Paine also told the task force he doesn’t see much room for improvement; UCB boats are already using best practices to avoid bycatch, he told the task force.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t know if we can do a better job than what we’re doing right now,” Paine said. He explained the bycatch limits and system in the Bering Sea pollock fishery are very motivating to boat captains already: “We’re averaging about 13-15,000 chinook [bycatch] to catch 1.4 million tons of pollock a year. You know, if we get one or two chinook per 100 metric tons of salmon, that triggers an alarm that tells the rest of the fleet that it’s a high bycatch area. Every single toe that goes in the water in the pollock fishery right now in the Bering Sea, those captains – the first thing they’re thinking about is what the bycatch rate is.”

While it’s required to be reported, there isn’t a federal cap for chum salmon bycatch.

Last year, federal data show trawlers in the Bering Sea scooped up more than half a million chum, pink and silver salmon, and almost 14,000 king salmon. In the Gulf of Alaska, groundfish harvesters took even more king salmon as bycatch, which does fall within federal limits for bycatch.

Even so, critics say it represents tens of thousands of fish that aren’t in smokehouses feeding predominantly Native communities in western Alaska or filling directed state or federal commercial fishery quotas.

Karen Pletnikoff called in to request concrete action from the task force to reduce incidental catch. She’s an Anchorage-based program manager for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association which represents 13 of Alaska’s most remote coastal Native communities. She asked the task force to keep the focus on the effects of bycatch on directed fisheries and subsistence harvesters.

“Data and information are how we get to the truth, but we’re not going to be able to inform the people who are being impacted by this bycatch, that, you know, these other factors are at play, and that’s why this is happening. It’s really about the only thing that we do control, and that is the bycatch,” Pletnikoff said.

When discussing how to divide subcommittees, the task force discussed dividing by fishing sector or species. Pletnikoff questioned why the force would give outsized influence to the trawl industry.

“If the subcommittees are going to be offering opportunity for direct input from the those who have well-funded and industry spokesgroups, they have businesses that are built around supporting them, then at least that much consideration should be given to the directed fisheries, the subsistence fisheries, the personal use and the sport fisheries all separately,” she said. “The industry has had the chance to mull it over themselves amongst themselves before and will continue to, but this opportunity to hear from the public is unique.”

Across gear groups, both Alaskans and representatives of the Seattle-based trawl fleet called for a clear problem statement for the bycatch task force to address before it goes any further.

The task force assigned half of its members to get started on that. That subcommittee will include task force chair John Jensen, and the members representing the Department of Fish & Game, the general public, the trawl industry, Alaska Native organizations, and the state Senate president.

The ADF&G commissioner’s office said Monday that the department is also looking into setting up a website for the Bycatch Review Task Force to improve access to documents and other task force publications.

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled to take place over teleconference on March 9. By then, there may be a clearer idea of what the governor’s bycatch task force will attempt to accomplish before its deadline to report back in November.

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