Trawl fishing is one of the major contributing factors to wanton waste in the fishing industry. Every angler, whether sportfishing, subsistence or commercial fishing has a responsibility to shoulder their share of the burden of conservation when it comes to protecting Alaska’s fisheries.
When people think of fishing in Alaska, they conjure up visions of big and plentiful when it comes to the variety of species available to catch. While there are still some fisheries in the Great Land that are amazing, many salty ol’ captains reminisce about the old days of big and plentiful and whatever fish species you want to talk about. Some of the yarns should be treated like any fish story, but there seems to be a common thread in that certain species of iconic Alaskan fish species are definitely not as big or abundant as they were two or three decades ago. There is data out there to support these claims of lower abundance and size. The real issue is nobody can agree on what is causing these declines, and as we find answers there seem to be more questions that pop up.
Halibut over 100 pounds don’t seem to be as common as they were 20 years ago. A range of factors are at play, but we can control how we manage them to allow more big breeders to spawn.
© Scott Harris
It isn’t hard to find recent articles or reports in mainstream Alaskan media talking about the severely struggling Chinook (king) salmon runs throughout the state. Outside of Alaska there is minimal press about the issue. There’s also the fact that residents on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers haven’t been able to subsistence fish for kings and chums for multiple years. What isn’t even discussed anymore is how there hasn’t been a consistent in-river harvest opportunity on wild kings in Cook Inlet streams or on Kodiak Island streams in a decade or more. If it was an in-river habitat issue there would be localized runs that would be struggling, but since it is across the board where we see these significant declines, then it must be something happening to our state fish (Chinook salmon) while they are spending two- to six years in the saltwater.
Anytime there are declines in Mother Nature, there is rarely one smoking gun. There are almost always multiple factors that go into a declining population. Many of those factors are outside of human control. No matter where you stand on the climate-change issue, you would have to be living in a cave to not see that we are seeing changes in our climate. It is a natural process that has swung back and forth since the dawn of time, and this can adversely affect species that live in a narrow environmental niche. The aforementioned king and chum salmon declines as well as the devastating collapse of crab populations in the southern Bering Sea have all been blamed on climate change. Is it the sole factor in their declines? No, but I’m sure it isn’t helping their populations stabilize and sustain the current level of human interaction.
The Conservation Burden
As humans, we don’t have much control over what the climate cycles do or don’t do, but we can totally have control over our interactions with various species. Any angler can see changes to our retention limits anytime there is a change in abundance in any of the species we target, whether up or down. Unfortunately, sport anglers and subsistence users get the short end of the stick nowadays when populations of various species are in decline. The conservation burden feels like it always falls on the shoulders of sportsmen anytime a species is in decline. Even though anglers contribute large sums of money per pound of fish they harvest to the state economy, our political contributions seem to fall short of making sure we get a fair piece of the pie.
Isn’t management of fish just science and math? In a perfect world it would be, but there are many different user groups for each species of fish and each one has their own unique impact on the population. You have sport anglers, subsistence, directed commercial harvest, and commercial bycatch that all must be accounted for. These are managed in Alaska by both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) as well as the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC). There is significant crossover in how various fisheries are managed, though, and who has primary oversight.
Management and User Groups
Anybody who has fished in Alaska is familiar with ADF&G, but most aren’t aware of the NPFMC. The NPFMC is one of multiple regional fisheries councils established by the Magnuson-Stevenson Act of 1972. Ideally, having regional fisheries management was to have regional stakeholders involved in the process to make sure nobody was left out when allocating catch among user groups. A sound concept, but greed and human nature has put overall long-term, sustainable health of certain species at risk to maximize economic value of other species. Currently there is noise in Congress to change some wording in the Magnuson-Stevenson Act to prioritize sustainability over economic value, which should be a huge win for recreational and subsistence users as well as the fish.
Habitat restrictions in the Bering Sea with most restrictions tied to trawl gear. Areas with no nonpelagic trawl like Norton Sound still have viable crab fisheries. © NOAA Fisheries
Now that the governing bodies have been identified, who are the user groups that are involved in various fisheries that target the same beloved species that us recreational fishers are enamored with? Outside of recreational and subsistence use you have commercial fisheries that take the vast majority of available harvest for a particular species. There is nothing wrong with utilizing a directed commercial harvest on a fish species that contributes both to the livelihoods of fishing families and provides tax revenue for the state—as long as it is managed sustainably. The issue lies where certain fisheries and gear types are leveraging themselves to get more than everyone else. This is when the failure of the Magnuson-Stevenson Act is most evident. When a user group has a higher bycatch than the directed fisheries, it is a pretty good indicator that the governing process is failing.
All fishing has a certain level of bycatch, which is when you catch non-targeted species. So, anytime you catch a Dolly Varden while targeting rainbows, or a pink while targeting silvers, it is bycatch. The same concept applies in any commercial fishery. They have bycatch, but on a much larger scale. It is just a part of fishing, no matter what tactics you employ. The biggest thing is mortality and how much is acceptable for that particular species.
Mortality levels are drastically different depending on what gear you are using. A hook-and-line-caught fish is going to have a relatively low mortality rate (example: Kenai kings caught-and-released on sport tackle show a mortality rate of roughly 6%) while something sitting at the cod end of a trawl net with tons of fish pushing down on it for an hour while being towed at five knots isn’t going to survive. Period. By and large, commercial bycatch is dumped overboard. Wasted.
Mortality of any fish species, whether directed fisheries or unintended bycatch, should be managed based on abundance. Fish populations are a very dynamic, constantly fluctuating number that are affected by a multitude of variables. Many of those variables are outside of human influence and control, but the one we can control is mortality on a particular species in the various fisheries that come into contact with them. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep that mortality in a percentage range that allows the fish populations to be sustainable even when there are declines in the population? It totally does, as that is how plenty of successful fisheries have been managed for years! But what happens when a fishery goes outside of that sustainable catch (or bycatch) number? They should be shut down, whether it is a directed fishery or indirect bycatch.