NPFMC & BYCATCH – Feb. 2024

Catcher/Processor “Ocean Rover” docked in Seattle. Jackson Combs photo.

The North Pacific Fisheries Marine Council, including its supporting groups, met in Seattle this February for a total of eight days. The NPFMC is responsible for groundfish fisheries and bycatch limits in federal waters from 3-200miles off Alaska. While multiple agencies made general reports to the council, the primary focus was the impact of the trawl fleet. Held in a conference room a thousand miles away, the outcome affects the way of life of every Alaskan.

Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

How much contact can gear have with the ocean floor before it’s considered bottom trawling?

How many feet above the sea floor, and exactly how much of the net must be “mid-water” to fish in areas banned to bottom trawling?

You’d think it would be black and white; however outdated verbiage, updated technology, and a fishermen’s natural tendency to push the limits has caused the need to reexamine these terms. Studies show “mid-water” (pelagic) tows still put gear on the sea floor up to 100% of the time. (1) The council considered action that could close some loopholes…or leave them open.

Pollock fisheries are interacting with crab in areas previously designed to provide safe-haven during molting and breeding. While “bottom trawling” is banned in these areas, crabbers argue any contact with the seafloor has damaging affect on the fishery and the health of the stock. Trawlers claim that their impact is “unknown to minimal”, but being pushed out would lead to more salmon and halibut bycatch and unjust economic burden on their fleets. The council moved to develop “purpose and needs” statements and “expanded discussion” papers to potentially look at future action including potential increases to the allowable salmon bycatch limit.

     Though not an official agenda item, and to some extent barely acknowledged by the council, the health of Alaska’s’ salmon stocks weighed heavily in public comment. Brushed over in the meeting, a written report from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) outlined the petition of the united tribal associations of the Yukon, representing over 35 tribes and organizations, asking for a “Zero Limit” Chinook Bycatch cap, that would shut down the Pollock fleet for 180 days if a single salmon was reported landed in the fishery.

The ask is largely symbolic.

Evidence shows several factors contributing to the decline of Chinook (King) and Chum stocks on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Unfortunately in response to this, in river fishing, including subsistence, has been shut down for multiple years, causing lasting damage to these communities. While Chum salmon catch on the Upper Yukon River has been 0, during the four-year closure, according to NOAA data, the Pollock fleet has caught over 1.2 million chums of their own just offshore. (2.)

Closer to home, barely into the new year, over 3,500 salmon had already been taken as bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska. Including over 2,500 king salmon just in the first week of February. And one metric ton of Halibut had been reportedly caught. (3) A 2020 DNA test of salmon bycatch showed a significant number of these salmon come from our streams in Southeast Alaska. (4)

Here are two clips of public testimony from the meeting. I urge you to listen and reflect on them.

I attended these meetings with an open mind. It was, however, difficult to hear story after story fall on deaf ears while science with questionable design was being embraced as justification to continue business as usual.

It only takes a few minutes on the NPFMC website to see that many of the council are employed by the very corporations they are tasked with regulating. The decisions of the NPFMC to recommend further research, draft more paperwork, and kick the can further down the road is telling. Their in-action speaks for itself.

We can give ourselves fancy titles, invent complicated acronyms, and debate extensively. But at the end of the day if we’re honest with ourselves as people it’s obvious what needs to be done. What we can control. As a small boat American commercial fisherman, I always took pride in the innovations in sustainability that has historically come out of the U.S. fishing fleets. Avoiding immediate measures to reduce bycatch, protect fisheries, communities, and culture is unacceptable. Weighing corporate gain and considering increases to bycatch limits while starving out communities is completely wrong. These companies are not fishermen, and they’re certainly not Alaskans.

We cannot simply wait for more information. We must reign in the pillaging of salmon, crab, and halibut to maintain balance and protect culture and way of life. Fish are dying. People are dying. Culture is dying. The money does not benefit most Alaskans. It is critical that Alaska speaks up. Please take opportunity to voice your beliefs. The objection to bycatch is growing and change is inevitable.

The Regional Subsistence Advisory Council will be meeting in early March. Make your voice heard.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Board of Fish will be meeting in late March. Make your voice heard.
The Federal Subsistence Board will be meeting in April. Make your voice heard.

The North Pacific Fisheries Marine Council will be meeting again in April to further review Chinook/Chum bycatch, analyze fish DNA, and review their Sea-Share bycatch food share program, to further justify the salmon they’re taking from Alaskan homes. Make your voice heard.

– Jackson Combs

The views and opinions expressed here-in are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the author’s employer, company, institution, or other associated parties. Any content provided by the author is of their opinion and not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
Have a good day. 😊

1)Cunningham, Sam (NPFMC) and Cates, Kelly (NMFS AKRO SF)
“Bristol Bay Red King Crab Information Discussion Paper: Item 3: Bottom Contact by Pelagic Trawl Gear” 2022

2)“Non-Chinook salmon mortality in BSAI groundfish fisheries (including pollock)”

3) National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region, Sustainable Fisheries Catch Accounting; “Gulf of Alaska Prohibited Species Report”

4)C. M. Guthrie III, Hv. T. Nguyen, C. L. D’Amelio, K. Karpan, P. D. Barry, and W. A. Larson “Genetic Stock Composition Analysis of Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) Bycatch Samples from the 2020 Gulf of Alaska Trawl Fisheries”

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