Republicans, Democrats and independents seeking a variety of elected offices across Alaska appear united by a desire to restrict deep-sea trawling.
In candidate questionnaires submitted to the Alaska Beacon, candidates for statewide and legislative races — regardless of party — say the restrictions are the best way to improve salmon returns on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
“I support efforts to reduce the wasteful bycatch of Alaska’s seafood by Seattle-based high seas fishing corporations,” said Mary Peltola, the Democratic candidate for Alaska’s U.S. House seat.
“Science provides the best guide. However, I think most Alaskans agree it is past time to get high seas trawler bycatch under control,” said Tuckerman Babcock, a Republican candidate for an Alaska Senate district on the Kenai Peninsula.
Their comments were typical of those submitted to the Beacon, and Linda Kozak, a Kodiak fisher who has been following fisheries issues for three decades, said she’s seen a public reaction unlike anything in her career.
“For the first time in as long as I’ve been involved in fish politics, bycatch is a household name in Alaska. It’s something that the public is interested in,” she said.
Though Bristol Bay’s red-salmon fishery is enjoying a record year, fishing for king and chum salmon on the Yukon has been curtailed for a second straight summer because of low returns, leaving traditional subsistence fishermen unable to catch fish. Similar restrictions are in place on the Kuskokwim.
The low returns have been blamed on a variety of factors, including climate change, habitat destruction and bycatch, which occurs when ships catch salmon while pursuing other fish.
Bycatch occurs in every fishery that targets a specific species, but while seeking pollock and cod in a billion-dollar industry, Alaska’s trawlers inadvertently catch tens of thousands of king salmon and hundreds of thousands of chum salmon in their nets each year, according to observations by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
By law, the salmon must be returned to the ocean, but fish die in the process.
The amount of bycatch fluctuates from year to year and has fallen in the recent past, but the sheer numbers of fish caught by trawlers has aroused public ire.
A Facebook group calling itself “Stop Alaskan Trawler Bycatch” now boasts almost 20,000 members, and various groups have called on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council — which regulates fisheries more than 3 miles off Alaskan shores — to more tightly cap bycatch.
In January, the council denied an emergency action requested by several groups in western Alaska. In June, additional requests were answered by motions to develop a working group and write a discussion paper.
Many of the salmon caught as bycatch, according to genetic studies performed by NMFS, are from Asia, British Columbia or places other than the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers.
That fact, coupled with the fact that tighter bycatch caps could restrict pollock and cod fishing, has discouraged action.
“The best available scientific information indicates that Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery comprises less than three percent and chum salmon bycatch comprises less than one percent of the returns to Western Alaska river systems. Closure of the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery in 2022 is unlikely to result in meeting escapement goals or substantively increase the likelihood of improving subsistence and commercial harvests in 2022,” said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service, in January.
Les Gara, the Democratic candidate for governor, said that if elected, he would “nominate (North Pacific) Council members who’d protect our fisheries from this vastly excessive Outside factory trawler ‘bycatch,’ which decimates Alaska fish and crab, and harms our fish runs.”
“Subsistence, commercial and sport access for recreational fishing are all critical aspects of Alaska’s fishing policies,” said Charlie Pierce, a Republican candidate for governor. “A common issue that affects all areas is the trawler bycatch problem. Ending Alaskan trawler bycatch will reduce the pressure on all Alaskan fishing concerns in the state.”
In late 2021, following a legislative hearing on bycatch, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy set up a task force to offer recommendations.
That group is expected to deliver those recommendations after the election. In the meantime, Dunleavy said, it’s best to reserve judgment.
“Certainly, on the Yukon, kings and chums — something is happening related to that river system, and we need to uncover exactly what it is and try and figure this out,” Dunleavy said this month.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has also called for additional studies and research. Writing to the Beacon, she did not discuss bycatch. Murkowski’s lead challenger, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, did not respond to the Beacon’s questionnaire.
Independent governor candidate Bill Walker said that no administration can wave a wand and bring fish back to the rivers, but there are steps to take.
“In Western Alaska, we must first acknowledge the impacts of salmon bycatch and climate change, then appoint officials well-versed in the science to begin the necessary work to address the problems,” he said.