Bycatch- Why it Matters
As the skies taunt us off and on with sunshine and rain, many Alaskans are taking the time to fill our freezers and hit the waters. Whether it be rods and reels or nets of varying degrees of size, from dip nets to trawlers. Our fishing economy accommodates all sizes, and most Alaskans know how to fish sustainably to ensure the runs return and that Alaskans further inland have the opportunity to feed their families and sustain their way of life. These waters can be bountiful for all if we show a little respect and moderation.
But moderation isn’t centered in everyone’s fishing practices. Many out-of-state trawling companies are severely damaging our smaller-scale fishing communities and fisheries with their excessive bycatch. Bycatch is defined as the “unwanted fish” and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species. In this case, the fish like crab, salmon, and halibut that sustain our Alaskan communities are considered refused by pollock trawlers and thrown back into the sea dead.
Over the past ten years, yearly, the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska trawl fleets have caught, killed, and discarded approximately 141 million pounds of salmon, halibut, crab, sablefish, and other species. While non-Alaskan-based trawl fleets catch record numbers, western Alaskan fishing communities, salmon fishing, snow crab fishing, and Bristol Bay red king crab fishing have been severely limited or cut off altogether. Yukon River Chinook salmon are forecasted to return in low numbers in 2023, and the chum salmon return is uncertain - leading state managers to close subsistence fishing in the Lower Yukon.
Alaskans can’t continue our ways of life with these massive hits on bycatch species. Closures and reduced access harm our communities, and overfishing harms our ecosystems and the species diversity needed to repair our waters and climate.
What we need is better regulation so that Alaskan salmon, crab, and pollock can sustainably fill our freezers and our nets. It’s time to take action and demand regulations. Right now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries are collecting comments to update guidelines for National Standards to better address environmental changes and inequity in federal fisheries management. We have the opportunity to say that the system is broken and give some real solutions on how to fix it before it’s too late.
Just now, Alaska Natives in Western Alaska are suffering at the hand of a disproportional fish management system. It’s time that NOAA defines “fishing community” to include the importance of place-based communities directly tied to fisheries, including Alaska Native subsistence fisheries and Alaska coastal communities and Tribal representation at the decision-making tables.
This comment period is important, and our priority should be a holistic approach that includes climate and ecosystem management. While there are numerous issues why our fish are in decline, this is an opportunity to do something tangible about it now. Public comment is open till September 15. Use your voice.