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Alaska editorial: King closures expose double standards on bycatch

Posted: August 5, 2012 - 12:10am

This article first appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce:

A fisheries management nightmare is playing out across the state caused by weak king salmon returns. The social and economic harms have yet to be calculated, although we have no doubt they are immense.

Sport and subsistence king fisheries have been shut down. The East Side setnetters on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been shut down as sockeye surge past the beaches. Commercial chum salmon runs in Western Alaska have been restricted and new fishing gear required — all to avoid killing any king salmon.

Meanwhile, the Gulf of Alaska pollock fleet is about to hit the waters with an allocation of 14,527 king salmon as bycatch for the C and D seasons that begin Aug. 25 and Oct. 1.

The Bering Sea pollock fleet, with until Oct. 31 to catch the rest of a 1.2 million metric ton quota, still has an allocation of 17,741 king salmon remaining as of July 14 with one-third of the harvest to go.

To be clear: this is not meant to be an attack on the pollock industry, which is without question an important part of the Alaska economy. The Journal is not anti-pollock or anti-trawl fleet. What we are is pro-accountability, and in this time of extreme conservation measures nobody can escape their fair share of it.

We find no fault in the fleet advocacy on behalf of its membership, which has entirely legitimate arguments. For instance, ocean conditions could naturally have a greater effect on productivity than interceptions, and it is true that the amount of salmon bycatch is indeed miniscule compared to the 1.2 million metric ton quota of pollock in 2012.

However, consider the “bycatch” of king salmon taken by the East Side setnetters (which really isn’t bycatch because it can be commercially sold while pollock fleet takes cannot). In 2011, this group of setnetters caught more than 2 million sockeye compared to 8,356 king salmon, or a rate of 0.4 percent.

Like the Bering Sea pollock fleet, that’s a pretty low rate, but they are still shut down because indications are not even the minimum escapement will be met for kings on the Kenai.

King salmon conservation measures cost the setnetters about 500,000 sockeye from their historical split in 2011, or about $4.5 million in dockside value, and the 2012 closure to the East Side setnetters could wind up costing this group $20 million.

The potential harm often cited by the pollock fleet in fighting against bycatch controls certainly stands in stark contrast to the very real economic devastation now being felt by salmon fishermen of all types around the state.

While we don’t quarrel with the pollock fleet’s right to advance its interests, with its advocacy comes the need to either downplay or deny any impacts of bycatch on Alaska salmon runs. Again, this is their job, but their interests don’t always coincide with the public interest.

This is where the federal regulators on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are supposed to play their role. While drawn by design from industry stakeholders, their job is not to vote a constituency, but to use their knowledge of the fishery to make an informed decision.

It is not an unreasonable observation that the trawl fleets for both pollock and groundfish wield major — and often decisive — clout at the council when it comes to management of salmon, halibut and tanner crab that are prohibited species catches for them.

Nor is it unreasonable to note the glaring contradiction inherent in directed users being barred from even catching and releasing a single king salmon while a prohibited species user group catches them by the thousands.

It may be true that the marine environment is a greater force than the pollock fleet in salmon abundance, but that only makes conservation of the kings that are out there more important.

To argue that bycatch is not significant at a time of low productivity is to simultaneously ignore the disproportionate impact bycatch can have in such a period as well as the conservation burden now being borne by the direct users.

The pollock fleet may argue that it isn’t practical or realistic to even consider shutting down their fishery as a conservation measure. A few months ago, the East Side setnetters would have probably said the same thing.

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