Behnken OPINION: Peltola pulls for Alaska fishermen

Peltola gets credit for trying to tighten regs that allow "mid-water" trawl nets to fish on the bottom with no limits. Now they can be on-bottom up to 100% as the NPFMC debates "definitions."

by | June 11, 2024

By Linda Behnken/Anchorage Daily News
June 10, 2024

Fish news out recently shows us once again that Alaska’s fishermen have a rare champion in Rep. Mary Peltola. Mary introduced two bills that focus on funding NOAA’s bycatch reduction program and advancing critical regulations on trawl gear.

Wild seafood provides food security and livelihoods across the country, but nowhere is that more true than in Alaska. We are fortunate to have a leader who not only has her own boots in fisheries but is bold enough to drive hard conversations around our biggest challenges.

In the North Pacific, that includes bycatch management and habitat protection — not only as a foundation for sustainable management, but as a critical part of climate resilience. We’ve seen the complete collapse of two iconic Alaska crab species, and elimination of subsistence fishing on major rivers with communities highly dependent upon that food resource. We’ve witnessed the abrupt crash of Gulf of Alaska cod following the 2014-2016 marine heat wave. As fish stocks and ocean conditions change more quickly and more substantially than ever before, we need conservation tools that match the pace with that change to safeguard ocean health.

For years, subsistence, commercial, and recreational fishermen in Alaska have asked for meaningful action by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect fish stocks and fish habitat. Countless constituents have voiced concern about the impacts of large-scale trawling on an ecosystem made increasingly vulnerable by climate change. And while the federal fisheries management process is slow and deliberate by design — and the nature of these issues has made it even more so — the hard truth is that the impacts are quickly out-pacing action, and we cannot afford to wait.

Along with most of Alaska’s fishermen, Rep. Peltola recognizes the need for action. She also recognizes the importance of management being ultimately driven by the regional management councils and their stakeholder processes. This is why her bills focus on empowering progressive regional change — by funding the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program already championed by North Pacific fleets, and by calling on the councils to do the important work of clearly defining the functions and limitations of trawl gear.

Image credit: ResearchGate

The latter has been a particular point of concern for Alaskans over the past several years. Trawl fisheries make up 97% of the fishing footprint in the North Pacific. That means that if trawling has unassessed negative impacts on habitat or fish stocks, then the potential for harm is significant. This has become the most concerning in the regulation of trawl gear in contact with the ocean floor.

Pelagic trawl is often described as a “mid-water” trawl, operating off the seabed and away from the fragile habitats and organisms living there. This is theoretically why pelagic trawls are allowed to fish in areas and at times when bottom trawling is banned.

The pelagic trawl fleet in the North Pacific primarily fishes for pollock, the largest food fishery on the planet. It turns out their nets also spend a great deal of time in contact with the ocean floor. In fact, Council analysis estimates as much as 60% of the time for catcher vessels, and as much as 100% of the time deployed for catcher processors.

linda behnken

North Pacific regulations do not limit the time that pelagic trawls may be in contact with the seabed, nor do they define pelagic trawl operations in the context of proximity to the seafloor. This is a critical gap in our sustainability matrix and Mary is trying to correct it.

As an Alaskan and a commercial fisherman, I’m grateful to have a Representative who sees the value and potential of our fisheries and takes meaningful steps to protect them. These dialogues push us to be leaders in sustainable fisheries, to learn from our challenges and innovate. This is the kind of work that will get fishing communities through unprecedented times, and it is what good stewardship looks like — hard conversations about how to adapt and improve today, so that we can all go fishing tomorrow.

Linda Behnken is a commercial fisherman from Sitka, and the Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Behnken also served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

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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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