Fishing vessels cast wide nets, and they often catch more than the species they’re targeting. That’s bycatch: one of the longest-running controversies in the fleet and a vexing problem for fisheries managers. Now, the Dunleavy administration is wading into the debate by naming a task force to study the issue and find ways to make it better for everyone working on the water.
Governor Mike Dunleavy’s office recently announced it’s setting up a task force to tackle the thorny issue of bycatch.
Federal data show trawl fisheries this year in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska have caught tens of thousands of Chinook salmon, millions of pounds of halibut, and in the case of the Bering Sea trawl fisheries, hundreds of thousands of crabs.
Stocks of staple species like Chinook salmon, red king crab, and halibut have been on the decline, forcing subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen to pack up nets or reduce harvest.
“We’ve had a reduction in or closure of the crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. The [North Pacific Fishery Management] Council is discussing how to deal with halibut bycatch, and I think there’s a lot of perception that there are bycatch issues associated with what’s happened with salmon in Western Alaska systems,” says Alaska Fish & Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. And, he says, his boss has taken notice.
“I think the governor was hearing loud and clear that there was just a lot of noise around the issue of bycatch,” Vincent-Lang said Friday, “And I think he wanted to get Alaskans together, discuss what the issue is, what we know about it, what we don’t know about and identify different strategies that we all could take to try to reduce bycatch or manage bycatch better, to hopefully have sustainable fisheries over time. That may not necessarily result in a reduction. I think it’s how you manage bycatch moving forward.”
Most bycatch happens in federal waters, beyond the 3-mile line. But it does occur in state fisheries too. Even so, why convene a state task force when it’s a primarily federal fishery management issue?
“Many of the people that are involved with bycatch are Alaskan-based fishermen,” says Vincent-Lang, “So we know that they have a lot of expertise and information that they can bring to the table, and maybe fresh ideas will emerge about how to better manage bycatch in the future.”
The executive order establishing the task force says its goal is to study the impacts of bycatch on what it calls “high-value” state fisheries, recommend policies based on that impact, advise state agencies to better use resources to address bycatch, and use science to inform policy-makers and the public about how bycatch is felt in Alaska fisheries.
Vincent-Lang says that designation of high-value is meant to be a more expansive metric than simple cash value: “It could have value to coastal communities in terms of jobs and collateral benefits of the value back from collecting fish taxes to those communities, you can have high value to for food security, it could have a high value for cultural purposes.”
The task force will be made up of 13 voting members, nominated by the governor.
Voting seats will include the commissioners of state Fish & Game and Department of Commerce; a seat apiece for salmon, halibut, crab and trawl interests or fishermen; seats for a Community Development Quota program representative, an Alaska Native organization, a personal use or sport fisherman, a coastal mayor, a member of the general public, and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal fisheries outside Alaska waters.
It will also include two non-voting members of the state legislature, nominated by the leadership of the House and Senate. The chair and vice-chair of the task force aren’t set yet. They’ll be selected by the governor once the voting seats are filled.
Representation on the task force is meant to capture a sample-size swath of Alaska fishing interests. That means seats for state administration officials, various fisheries, Alaska Native organizations and the general public.
But bycatch critics warn that its effectiveness will depend on its composition.
“That task force initiative is definitely welcome,” says David Bayes, a longtime sport charter business owner in Homer, “And it shows a level of commitment from the governor’s office which we’ve rarely seen.”
In addition to his charter business, Bayes is also an online activist of sorts, moderating a lively Facebook group called “STOP Alaskan Trawler Bycatch” that has more than 15,000 people signed up.
“We’ve seen, a lot of times, especially at the NPFMC, that undercurrents of the trawl industry run pretty deep in Alaska commerce and politics,” he continues. Bayes is talking about the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has been criticized for giving too much clout to big-money industry trawlers who are responsible for much of Alaska’s bycatch.
“One of the named seats or positions [on the task force] is a representative from the NPFMC,” Bayes says, “And a big question for me is: Is the purpose of that representative going to be to facilitate the task force access to raw Council data? Or is that person acting as a representative of the Department of Commerce? There’s also a trawl rep on [the task force]. Again, it’s kind of this question of: Are they speaking towards conventions and practicability in the industry? Or are they going to try and derail the conversation by saying it’s all a facade, or something that we shouldn’t worry about in the first place?”
For his part, Bayes says he’s planning to apply for a seat on the governor’s task force. He says he’s optimistic that this could be a new opportunity for fisheries users to have a voice.
Vincent-Lang says the Dunleavy administration hopes that the bycatch task force will have an impact on federal fisheries management.
“I have a seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,” Vincent-Lang says, “[So] hopefully the information we collect will be used to inform federal decision making — Council decision-making regarding bycatch moving forward.”
But he also says that bycatch in state waters deserves scrutiny. Ideas that come out of the task force could include topics needing research moving forward, which could, in turn, inform decisions at the state Board of Fisheries or within the administration.
“We’re just trying to get people together to talk about the issue, so there’s a better understanding of what the fundamental issues are surrounding bycatch, and maybe have some fresh ideas of what can be done to better manage it moving forward, both at a state and federal level,” Vincent-Lang explains.
The bycatch task force won’t have funding to allocate towards research, but Vincent-Lang says that’s a piece of the puzzle that will come once it issues its recommendations to state and federal policymakers next year. It’s up against the deadline of November 2022, when it will be dissolved.
“Funding will probably be some joint effort between industries associated with bycatch, users, as well as state and federal efforts,” he says. “But before we identify the money for it, we need to identify what it is we want to do.”
Vincent-Lang says he hopes the administration can convene the group early next year to meet on a monthly basis, as outlined in the governor’s order.
“I think it’s really important that people are given an opportunity to weigh in on this issue, because, again, I think there’s a lot of concern about bycatch,” Vincent-Lang adds. “I think there’s some misunderstanding of what bycatch is and isn’t necessarily, and I think it’s good for people to get together talk about what we know about bycatch and identify a common understanding with what the issues are, and hopefully from there move forward with a with a better understanding of strategies of how we could hopefully better manage bycatch moving forward to help return value and sustainability to Alaska fisheries.”
The governor’s office is accepting applications to serve on its new bycatch task force until December 3.
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