This editorial first appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce:
The final vote to limit chinook salmon bycatch by the Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl fleet to 7,500 per year was 10-1, but the decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was hardly as decisive as that margin would indicate.
While the drama was lacking on the final chinook salmon limit vote in Juneau on June 8, the council came precariously close to adopting a cap for the non-pollock trawl fleet of 10,000 rather than 7,500.
The six-member Alaska delegation on the 11-member council fought off that effort, but they were certainly not aided by National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill.
Merrill joined the Pacific Northwest council delegation that routinely puts trawl fleet interests over salmon conservation by voting in favor of the cap of 10,000 chinooks for a final tally defeating the effort of 6-5.
Let’s be real here: a cap of 10,000 chinooks for the Gulf bottom trawl fleet is so large as to render it meaningless. That total has been exceeded just once since 1996, and even choosing 7,500 is above the 10-year average.
However, it is possible and even reasonable to see the rationale for choosing a limit of 7,500, as that amount will be split between the various vessel types and between the central and western Gulf because some fleets may be more likely to be shut down by splitting up a lower cap.
Still, under a cap of 7,500 chinooks, the bottom trawl, or non-pollock, fleets would have faced closures in the four years since 2000. That lives up, at least partly, to Magnuson-Stevens Act National Standard 9 to “minimize bycatch to the extent practicable” while balancing National Standard 1 to achieve “optimum yield” in a fishery.
It is understandable that Pacific Northwest members on the council would vote to protect their constituencies who rely far more on Alaska trawl fisheries than they do upon salmon. And while these fleets face risks of being shut down because of caps on prohibited species catch on chinook, this is hardly different from the current situation when ground trawlers are shut down for hitting halibut limits.
This perspective is sympathetic to trawlers trying to make a living, but the “P” in PSC stands for prohibited for a reason, and that’s why it’s also called a limit and not an allocation.
Merrill’s vote, though, continues a pattern by NMFS Alaska Region of resisting efforts to reduce trawl bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska fisheries whether it is halibut or chinook salmon or tanner crab despite the dire situation facing all three of those species and the dependency of Alaska residents upon them be they subsistence, commercial or sport users.
That pattern fits into why Merrill, an alternate council member, was casting votes in the first place.
His boss, NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, is married to pollock and processor lobbyist Heather McCarty and based on Commerce Department conflict of interest rules he often steps aside from his official duties so that McCarty can lobby the council on issues affecting her clients.
Balsiger hasn’t always stepped aside on votes after McCarty has lobbied the council, though, and there is a major deficit of trust in the council process among a wide array of fisheries stakeholders based on their relationship and the way decisions and regulations emanate from the Alaska Region office.
For instance, at the June 2011 council meeting in Nome, Balsiger was the key voice who spoke up during deliberations to swing the vote in favor of an amendment to bump up the pollock chinook bycatch limit from the preliminary preferred alternative of 22,500 to the final approved total of 25,000. McCarty was one of only a handful of pollock representatives who gave public testimony in Nome.
Then, at the June 2012 council meeting in Kodiak, Balsiger (like Merrill did in Juneau) joined members of the Pacific Northwest delegation in supporting a delayed rollout of halibut bycatch cuts.
That measure was shot down 7-4, with council Chairman Eric Olson and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell immediately speaking out against Balsiger’s support for that stall tactic.
McCarty didn’t lobby the council at the Kodiak meeting in June 2012, but her client John Whiddon of Pacific Seafoods did. Whiddon submitted a letter to the council on behalf of Kodiak processors asking for either no cuts or a smaller cut in halibut bycatch.
Whiddon, at the time, was also putting his name forward for appointment to the International Pacific Halibut Commission on which Balsiger sits as the federal designee to the six-member U.S.-Canadian body.
It might sound bizarre to think that someone against cutting halibut bycatch would think it even possible to be appointed to the IPHC.
It’s not so strange when you consider that Philip Lestenkof, the president of the St. Paul Community Development Quota group that McCarty also represents, was a virtual unknown within the fisheries community until he was named to the IPHC early last decade and currently holds one of the seats now opened up.
Choice Commerce Department appointments have come often to McCarty, who has been a member of both the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, or MAFAC, and the North Pacific Research Board, which hands out Commerce Department grant funding.
When McCarty’s term expired on MAFAC last year, she was replaced by Julie Bonney of Kodiak, who is easily the most well-known Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet representative.
What is truly astounding about the way NMFS Alaska Region has favored trawl interests is how it looks when juxtaposed against the ridiculously thin science it has used to justify draconian fishing closures in the far western Aleutian Islands supposedly to protect food sources for Steller sea lions.
Despite mountains of evidence that halibut bycatch negatively impacts the species, or the decline in tanner crab populations around Kodiak or chinook salmon around Alaska, NMFS Alaska consistently sides with the trawl fleet while it is standing by junk science shutting down fisheries in the Aleutians.