My turn: Different approach needed for fisheries management

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2008

The problems we are facing in our commercial fishery practices are not new.

More than 30 years ago, when foreign fishing companies were allowed to fish in our waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, the problem of by-catch was a major concern. Bycatch is a term used to describe the problem of catching fish that are not being targeted. For example, in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, pacific cod is being fished. That's a targeted fishery.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council set a catch limit of pacific cod in both areas to 222,900 metric tons. This is 1,984,140 pounds of cod every year. That same council has awarded the same Seattle-based fishing companies 1,480,000 metric tons of pollock to be fished from these same waters. That amounts to - and I had to do this five times to get the figure because I could not believe it - 3,292,808,000 pounds of fish. Yes, you got it, three billion pounds of pollock taken out of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea every year!

And we worry about our halibut and salmon populations. Let's take a look at the numbers there, so far as "allowable bycatch" numbers.

In both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, the International Pacific Halibut Commission has determined that the total amount of halibut that can be caught by both commercial and recreational fishers is 27,396.98 metric tons or 60,400,000 pounds. The bycatch numbers are also scary. In 2001, the "allowable and legally sanctioned" bycatch for halibut by the large factory commercial fishing companies was 9,545.44 metric tons, or 21,000,000 pounds.

Yes, that's correct. Twenty-one million pounds of halibut that is sanctioned by the U.S. government and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez, who may have never seen a halibut, to catch and destroy.

Oh, they say they let them go and put them back into the water. More than 90 percent of these freed fish are dead or soon will be. And it feels like they tell our families we have to stop our way of life, our way of making a living, because the large, mostly foreign-owned factory commercial fishers are more important than us and our kids! I say sanctioned because that is an agreed amount for bycatch.

Where do these people, the government scientists come up with these numbers?

How do they determine the biomass of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea? What, in the Bering Sea, are the biomass numbers considering we only manage 50 percent of that rich water?

What about the other 50 percent managed by Russia? How did the IPHC come up with the round number of 60,400,000 pounds? How did the wise and intelligent members of the NPFMC decide that, yes, I vote for three billion pounds of pollock, a very important fish for many of the foods we depend upon for our survival, to be taken out? Who are these people? And Gutierrez sanctions their decisions? Hey, something smells fishy here.

The rich and powerful? And we complain that we can only catch two salmon; and by the way, cut their tails or you will be fined $110. Really fishy smelling.

The problems, which led me to look at the above, are more staggering for the Western Alaska salmon populations. This is a really serious issue, and the numbers of fish to be caught, and fish to be discarded, are not much different. It's just dealing with the same fishing companies from Seattle, out-of-state folks who can afford a Christmas tree and salmon.

But sadly, we will have to wait to discuss that due to space limitations in this paper. But even if the problems are rampant, there are solutions. We must demand from Gutierrez and the esteemed NPFMC a different approach to fishery management in Alaska. We need to approach the management from an ecosystem approach, that every plant and animal, fish and mammal is connected. If we continue with the same old management practices, you will see that your way of life and making a living will be sacrificed.

• George Pletnikoff is Unangan (Aleut) from the Pribilof Islands and now works with Greenpeace as the Alaska oceans campaigner. Contact him at

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