Update: 1 One hour before Published: 1 One hour before
Governor Mike Dunleavy recently announced the formation of a shiny new “task force” to study the impacts of bycatch on Alaskan fisheries and make recommendations to policy makers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been doing just that for nearly half a century with its permanent voting seat on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, or NPFMC.
Although allowable bycatch limits have rarely changed in recent decades, state and federal managers have eliminated and restricted Alaskans’ access to important species. These fish are intercepted as bycatch and discarded by the trawler fleet. Abundance of species such as king salmon, halibut and crab has fallen much faster than allowable trawl bycatch has been reduced. There is no denying the harmful and cumulative effects of this practice on the people and communities of Alaska.
This blatant mismanagement has been noticed by Alaskans, and we are understandably angry. Clearly, the Dunleavy campaign felt the heat coming from a diverse and powerful consortium ranging from lawmakers in urban Republican states to tribes in western Alaska; from small-boat angler organizations to the Alaska Outdoor Council.
So Governor Dunleavy responded by creating a task force — and here’s what Dunleavy’s new bycatch task force will have the power to do: nothing. An ostensibly symbolic non-action with no teeth, intended to buy time and political cover until the 2022 gubernatorial election. It is a political stunt that replaces meaningful action with more bureaucracy; a procedural wormhole, where the time and resources of hard-working people will be held captive. Meanwhile, bad actors, many of them appointed by the governor himself, will continue to enable the mass distribution of Alaska’s fish resources in real time. On the face of it, this is nothing more than a delay tactic, thrown at little people, with the hope that we’re all dumb enough to believe he actually did something about it.
The Yukon and Kuskokwim river freezers are out of salmon for the winter. Access to salmon and halibut for small-scale commercial fishing has been severely limited in many parts of the state over the past decade. Charter operators are feeling the double-edged sword of COVID-era reservations and reductions in allowable catches for their target species. Meanwhile, the politically connected trawl fleets continue, dragging their massive, indiscriminate nets all over the most ecologically valuable regions of the Alaskan coast, leaving behind a graveyard of gratuitous trash and decimated habitat. .
Here’s what we need to do, Governor: tell the NPFMC to reduce bycatch and stop donating our resources to the lower 48 entities. Make sure Alaska anglers are whole and have access to the fish. This goes for sport, commercial and, most importantly, subsistence fishers.
Finally, the State of Alaska has majority votes on the NPFMC. Ask Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang to guide us through bycatch reductions that are meaningful and positively affect all Alaskan anglers. Ted Stevens set it up that way for a reason.
If our governor can’t do better than that, we need to find one who can. Bycatch is on the ballot.
Alexus Kwachka grew up in Fairbanks, where he had his first job fishing on the Yukon River. He currently fishes in Bristol Bay and around Kodiak, where he lives.
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