Tribal and commercial fishing groups call for drastic cuts in trawl salmon bycatch

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Crew members of the Commodore fishing vessel shovel pollock in the Bering Sea in January 2019.
(Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Fishing fleets often catch more than the species they target. Alaskans who depend on salmon to feed their families are calling on federal fisheries managers to crack down on bycatch of a major food source.

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Fisheries managers allow whitefish trawlers to inadvertently pick up halibut, crab and salmon in their nets. The bycatch rate is relatively low, but because trawlers capture a large portion of their target species, unintentional catches add up.

In rural western Alaska, where runs of chum and king salmon have been poor, bycatch is ringing the alarm bells. Although accidentally caught salmon are often donated to food banks, it is unsafe for those living along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, where subsistence is a way of life.

“We eat dry fish like the people of the Midwest eat bread, at every meal,” Mary Peltola told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this month. She is the Executive Director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and lives in the predominantly Yup’ik community of Bethel. “Our babies get their teeth into dry fish, it’s the first food most Yup’iks eat, and it’s something we crave all year round.”

She testified that fishing on the Kuskokwim has been severely restricted to preserve wild salmon stocks. Meanwhile, trawlers have not faced new restrictions as they scoop up lucrative whitefish like pollock, cod and halibut. She asked the council to work to end bycatch in the industrial commercial trawler fleet.

“We are not policy experts,” said Peltola, “We are not scientists. We are not career people. It’s not on our career ladder. We are desperate to pass on the knowledge we have gained over 12,000 years of how to live in harmony with salmon and use salmon as a staple diet.

The At-Sea Processors Association – a large industrial trawling organization – said in an emailed statement that no fishery is without bycatch and that there are always other species in the nets or caught. at the line. A moratorium on salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea would mean a complete halt to pollock fishing, they argue.

Andy Mezirow, member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board, says he’s heard the call for “zero bycatch” before – why not ask less bycatch?

“I can see how maddening it would be not to have chinook salmon in your river and have thousands of them caught in the ocean in front of the river, so I understand your frustration,” Mezirow told Peltola during ‘public testimony. “But what I don’t understand is what the strategy of asking for zero bycatch is. This is a huge change from where we are today. “

Peltola replied that the goal should be zero.

“For people who depend on salmon for their food security, if they cannot harvest one [salmon], then the commercial industry should not be able to accidentally harvest it when that is not even what you are aiming for. Peltola said, adding: “There are also strong feelings that even the term bycatch is an affront to the fundamentals of not wasting and ensuring that all life is sustainable and able to regenerate itself.”

In 2020, trawlers in the Bering Sea reported bycatch of tens of thousands of chinook salmon and hundreds of thousands of chum.

This year’s ghastly salmon are heading to the Kuskokwim, Unalakleet and Upper Yukon rivers, which has already triggered one of the council’s bycatch reduction measures. But even under these rules, the trawler fleet is allowed to catch up to 45,000 kings.

And the Bering Sea isn’t the only place where bycatch is a problem. In the Gulf of Alaska, some salmon fishermen are complaining about the rules that allow bycatch allocations to be shifted. If the pollock trawlers in one area catch 1,300 fewer king salmon, for example, that allocation of 1,300 salmon can be transferred to another fishery.

Alexus Kwachka, a Kodiak-based commercial salmon fisherman, is a former member of the NPFMC advisory board and was one of dozens who recently called on Governor Mike Dunleavy and the NPFMC to tighten the rules.

“The trawler fleet has done a tremendous job of trying to mitigate their interaction with king salmon,” Kwachka said in a telephone interview. “But at the end of the day, they still use a bunch of them. And, you know, as these programs developed, we allowed one fishery to transfer fish to the next fishery ”, – In other words, the share exchange type system for chinook bycatch – “And I think it’s time to revisit that, and see if it’s really – you know, if we’re talking about saving king salmon, then the bottom line should be savings. .

Kwatchka says he thinks balancing commercial interests like the billion dollar pollock industry with rural subsistence traditions is a false equivalence: way of life, whether you’re talking about halibut, crab, or salmon. “, did he declare.

Kwachka adds that he knows climate change issues are playing a role in the continued decline of wild salmon stocks in much of the state.

“It’s not all about pollock fishing,” he says. “Obviously, there is something going on in the ecosystem. But until we have a better understanding of what’s going on, I think the savings should be savings.

The Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, an industry group representing independent fishing vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, says its business model depends on its ability to change bycatch limits.

“If the trawling stops, then life as I know it is over,” says Kodiak-based trawler Paddy O’Donnell. “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t operate my boat. And so that’s the impact it’s going to have on me and a lot of other families who are in the same situation. I have no other fisheries to go to. I trawl, I don’t fish for salmon, I don’t do any other fishing.

O’Donnell says the fleet has spent years working to improve technology and methods to reduce salmon bycatch: “The trawl industry has come a long way in developing gear. […] the gear modifications, the electronics and everything you’ve done over the years to try to reduce the amount of bycatch that we have with regard to salmon. We are continuing to work on this. We will continue to work on this, ”he said.

Rebecca Skinner adds that state and federal fisheries could benefit from in-depth studies of what is happening to Alaskan salmon populations in the marine environment. She is also involved with the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers, as an executive director. She says she doesn’t think trawling should be restricted to do these studies.

“We need more information, we need more genetic sampling […] and it would be very helpful to have a large study or a number of smaller studies to try to understand what’s going on in the ocean right now with salmon, ”Skinner said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office has bycatch on the radar.

“The problem of bycatch in the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zone, especially king salmon – the state fish of Alaska, is an issue my administration takes very seriously,” Governor Dunleavy said in a press release sent by email. “Subsistence users, sport fishermen, guides, commercial small-boat fishermen and local economies in our state are feeling the effects of the shallow runs. We will be having conversations with our members of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board on ways to reduce salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.

Earlier this year, the council requested more information on where the salmon would have returned had they not been bycatch, as well as updated information on the matrices that correlate salmon length to age.

While emergency action is possible under the charter of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board, there are strict guidelines. And the complex problem of West Alaskan salmon runs and trawler bycatch is unlikely to be right for them – despite calls for such urgent action.

One indication of this was a 16: 1 vote by the council advisory committee recommending against a zero bycatch policy.

Panel member Sinclair Wilt said during the discussion that the pollock industry provides community development funds for many villages in the YK Delta and Norton Sound, and there is no guarantee that a zero catch rule. accessory would put more salmon in communities.

“I don’t know what the answer is for rivers,” Wilt told fellow panelists, “But shutting down this industry. And putting all these people out of work is not the solution. Shutting down the industry – this is also hurting the region. “

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, expressed concern that federal fisheries managers are focusing too much on the economy.

“It’s not just a story of one commercial fishery against another,” says Behnken. “It’s subsistence. It is the culture of the people. It is these historic ties to place, family and community that we are putting in jeopardy at this time.

Bycatch is not limited to salmon. Crab fishermen are also calling for serious reductions in juvenile crab bycatch in trawls. But that’s another debate, for another time.

The current meeting of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board runs through October 15. Although the advisory committee rejected a proposal for zero salmon bycatch, the council will still consider a broader plan that encourages further research on chinook and chum bycatch, and supports consultation with tribes.

Contact KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.


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