Alaska legislators discuss bycatch concerns ahead of critical regional halibut meeting

The governor has established a state taskforce to examine bycatch issues
Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 4:39 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - An Alaska legislative committee heard from state and federal fisheries officials earlier in the month prior to a critical regional meeting on halibut bycatch.

The three-hour meeting centered on bycatch concerns with chinook and chum salmon, crab and halibut. Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang of the Department and Fish and Game spoke first about catastrophic chum salmon returns in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Bycatch is the unintentional harvest of non-target species while commercial fishing.

According to state data, the Yukon alone was down this year by roughly 1.5-2 million chum salmon from pre-season projections. Chum salmon bycatch by trawlers, which has been rising in recent years, cannot alone explain those reduced numbers, Vincent-Lang said, and the state will now try to determine what caused the historic Western Alaska salmon failures.

But, it was halibut bycatch limits for trawlers that target groundfish and cod in the Bering Sea that proved more controversial.

The Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in December to consider four alternatives that have been formulated over five years for limits on halibut bycatch by trawlers. They range from staying with the status quo to much more aggressive caps.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, pressed Vincent-Lang on which option he would support as a member of the council. The commissioner said the state will push for significantly tighter halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea as stocks have dropped, but he didn’t give a clear answer. Bering Sea halibut impacts stocks across the Gulf of Alaska.

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association is advocating strongly for the council to adopt the tightest halibut bycatch limits for trawlers, saying that would bring “equity” for Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska halibut fishing.

Kreiss-Tomkins agrees.

“The trawl fleet in the past has demonstrated that when their back is up against the wall, they will adapt and change their ways and reduce their bycatch,” he said. “And they need to do so again, and the council needs to make that happen.”

David Witherill, director of the North Pacific Fishery Management council, presented data showing how halibut bycatch has been reduced by more than half since the 1990s. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said the data presented was somewhat confusing and she was seeking further clarification.

Vance said that she’s heard from sportfishermen and longliners and is also advocating for the state of Alaska to support the tightest halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea. She said it isn’t a party issue.

“This is an Alaskan issue that we just care deeply about, and want to find a way to provide good management,” she argued.

One complaint for critics of the current halibut bycatch limits is where the trawlers are based. Witherill said that 20 bottom trawlers that operate in the Bering Sea sail out of Seattle. Vincent-Lang stepped in to say that they all pay local fisheries taxes, and Alaska communities have been buying shares in the fleet.

Three days after the committee hearing, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order, establishing a new 13-member state taskforce to examine bycatch issues.

“It’s imperative that the state’s fisheries are managed in a way that ensures their success for future generations,” he said through a prepared statement.

Vance says she has “mixed feelings” about the taskforce, saying the regional fishery council already allows public engagement, but she is hopeful it could bring stakeholders together to reduce bycatch.

Kreiss-Tomkins said the state’s answers about bycatch have been circular and confused. He echoed the mixed feelings about the new taskforce expressed by his Republican colleague.

“There has been incredible study on bycatch, it’s not as if the information is not available,” he said. “I think it’s primarily a question of, is there the will to do something about it?”

The Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council will host its next meeting Dec. 8 - 10. The halibut bycatch vote is scheduled for Dec. 9 and the livestream can be viewed here.

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