Public blasts NPFMC for lax action on trawl bycatch, begs protections for Bering Sea & GOA crab

Public comments to NPFMC reveal outrage, frustration, no confidence. Read them here ---

by | February 8, 2024

Public comments made available only after deadline closesRead a sampling

A red king crab closure at Bristol Bay…Midwater trawl gear definitions…Protections for Tanner crab in the Gulf of Alaska — those issues and more are being addressed now by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council through February 12 as it meets in Seattle. The NPFMC has jurisdiction over all fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore, an area covering more than 900,000 square-miles.

The NPFMC changed its public comment policy in May 2021 due to increased profanity and threats. The comments provide an opportunity to “get on the record” in federal documents, but “it was being used like a social media thread with back and forth finger-pointing and rebuttal bashing and foul language that was often way off topic,” said an industry insider.

The policy now says “no submitted comments will be visible on the online portal until the comment deadline has ended in order to minimize the opportunity for comments on comments, and disrespectful personal attacks.”

A total of 185 public comments were submitted for the February NPFMC meeting.

Most comments express outrage, despair A sampler…

The North Pacific Council meetings always begin with reports from its director and agencies such as NOAA and the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. That segment drew 25 comments and 21 were directed at trawler bycatch. Here’s a sample:

“I can’t even begin to express the outrageous regulations that allowing the purposeful depletion of our oceans. Along with having the people who profit from this disgrace determine it’s fate, corruption, greed, selling of fish to China only to be SOLD BACK, there is not a lot of hope unless drastic measures are taken. The killing of seabeds that have been untouched, killing of the corals that have been growing for thousands of years and can not be repaired. To all of you that are participating in the destruction of our oceans and fish, I wonder if the money will be worth your conscience when you come to the end of your life and have to realize your legacy. I wouldn’t want to face that judgement,” wrote Bonnie Lilley.

“Trawling, Trawl bycatch, along with “midwater” trawler is literally destroying all west coast fisheries. It must be stopped, just that seems like a tall task considering how much these trawl companies are in the pockets of those who are making the decisions. No Alaskan snow crab fishery, no Yukon river fishery, no Kenai peninsula salmon fishery, 10 Orcas KILLED, decrease of size in west coast salmon…the list goes on and on,” commented Geoff Martin.

“The bycatch issue with the trawl fleet is, by definition, wanton waste and would not be tolerated in any other industry,” stated Connor Murphy.

“We only have 1 earth. There is no other option for us if we ruin this planet. We need to pay attention to our actions and how we are creating imbalances in ecosystems. Please consider no trawl in Alaskan waters. The trawl bycatch numbers for Kings, young halibut, orcas, etc. are mind blowing. Just think – those are just what are reported. Just in these waters. Think bigger, what damage is being done across the globe? What impact is Ak Trawl contributing to collapse of ecosystems and destruction of the worlds food supply?” said Alexandria Bryant.

Our native children do not know how to catch, let alone cut, a salmon anymore…because of your allowance of continued abuse to resources. We loved and protected those resources for thousands of years by ourselves. Before this bureaucracy and greed. This is cultural assimilation- among SO MANY other things! Stop the trawling and raping of our resources. Uphold your duties to the environment and to all native people.

traci smith

King crab protections “being considered” for another review ; Trawlers point to their bottom line

The Council is considering a second review draft of an Environmental Assessment and Regulatory Impact Review for action alternatives aimed at reducing Bristol Bay red king crab (BBRKC) stock mortalities. That could result in closures in so called Red King Crab Savings Areas (RKCSA) to “certain groundfish gears” on an annual basis to protect molting and mating crabs.

That proposal drew 21 public comments (C2) with nearly all in support of the closures.

Predictably, reps of the Seattle-based trawl sector spoke out against any fishing restrictions to protect the depleted red king crab resource. They claim it will increase bycatch of other species and hurt their profits.

Stephanie Madsen, director of the At-sea Processors Association criticized the reviews and discussion papers done so far due to “the ongoing lack of scientific evidence to understand the relative importance of the RKCSA to the BBRKC stock.”

She added: Further, there remains a large knowledge gap relative to the basic life history characteristics of BBRKC that could lead to better understanding of the effectiveness of the blunt management tools considered within this Initial Review draft. In summary, we do not believe that there is sound science that supports any measurable benefits to the BBRKC stock by removing pelagic trawl gear from the RKCSA. However there is extensive information highlighting likely and known adverse impacts on other species, including Chinook salmon, chum salmon, and herring (at a minimum).”

“Given the state of the industry and the importance of these fisheries to fishing dependent communities, it is critical that the Council thoroughly consider tradeoffs between managing for uncertainty and managing known impacts to bycatch and fishing dependent businesses and communities,” said Julie Decker, new president of Seattle-based Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

She added: “Notwithstanding operational impacts and increased costs, the analysis clearly demonstrates significant increases to bycatch of salmon, Bairdi crab, herring, and halibut, with little or uncertain benefit to BBRKC crab. This does not seem to be the Council’s intended outcome – to take action that has certain harm in several respects, but low probability of meeting the purpose and need statement relative to BBRKC crab. Given the current balance of these tradeoffs, PSPA suggests the Council focus on whether any data, survey information or current research can lessen the degree of uncertainty associated with actions to further protect BBRKC in future analyses.”

The proposed Council action would mean a significant portion “of prime habitat for northern rock sole and yellowfin sole stocks, is closed to flatfish fishing,” bemoaned the Groundfish Forum’s John Gauvin, speaking this time as Fishery Science Projects Manager for the Alaska Seafood Cooperative.

Pelagic trawl gear definition changesputting the “mid” back in “mid-water”?

A study by NPFMC staff in April 2022 revealed for the first time that pelagic trawl catcher vessels are averaging 40% of the time on the ocean bottom. For catcher processors, the “mid-water” gear averaged 85% on the bottom.

In its June 2023 report to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) admitted that current pelagic trawls are being fished on the bottom and there is little they can do about it — because the gear doesn’t fit the regulatory definition in the federal rule books.

That same month, the NPFMC directed its staff and agencies “to work with fishery participants to identify potential revisions to the regulatory definition of pelagic trawl gear.”

For the February NPFMC meeting, 33 public comments were submitted and every one blasted the Council for its inaction and continued quibbling about “definitions.”

“There have been studies to indicate that pelagic trawl gear makes bottom contact for a significant amount of time that it is being utilized. One can argue about details regarding what particular component of the trawl gear (cod-end or otherwise) is making contact with the bottom, but the important factor is that critical environmental damage is being done to the ocean floor by this so-called “mid-water” trawling. It is time to stop arguing about definitions and put an end to the destruction that is being inflicted on fishery habitat with pelagic trawling,” commented William Gehrlein.

Kodiak speaks up for Gulf of Alaska Tanner crab

In June 2023, the Council tasked its staff to prepare a discussion paper “to inform potential Gulf of Alaska (GOA) Tanner crab protections” in two area around Kodiak Island. After reviewing the discussion paper and listening to public testimony, “the Council may choose to take no further action, to request more information from staff, or to initiate an analysis.”

Nearly 50 people urged the Council to move forward with GOA Tanner crab protections. Only one comment opposed any action.

“The scientific evidence does not show a problem, and thus we believe that the Council should drop this action from further consideration,” said Julie Bonney, director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank which represents Kodiak processors and trawl vessels.

A parting shot

A final comment was made in the Committees and New Business section of the agenda (E1) giving the NPFMC a vote of no confidence.

“Your taxpayers, citizens, and user groups have totally lost confidence in this organization. As corruption continues to invade this council like a cancer, the regulatory capture only grows by the year, with more and more former or current trawl executives or other personnel infiltrating positions here. We are trying to warn you of what we are seeing, but you are blinded by a system that clouds the truth, that hides your failures with a mound of information resulting in a very sad situation – a tragedy of the commons. It is so obvious to us as our crab, halibut, and salmon stocks continue to dwindle and collapse. All you care about is POLLOCK. Why pretend to care about the ecosystem as a whole? It is all smoke and mirrors, a facade so obvious to us. We beg you – listen to the science, listen to citizens of this state and small and independent user groups and businessmen. You are only helping the economy of Seattle, Canada, and Oregon by prioritizing their special financial interests over the financial, ecological, and indigenous interests of the state of Alaska. Don’t let Alaska become another Wal-Mart of the sea like we have seen happen on the West and East Coasts. Support small businesses, support tribes, support Alaskans – do your job. Do what we are paying you to do (unless of course the trawlers are paying you more or promising you a cushy position with 6 figures and a nice retirement after you leave your government job). Actions speak louder than words or promises,” said Rachel Christiansen.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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