New ‘Ocean Justice Strategy’ draws deluge of public comments

Gov't aims for more "equity" in ocean benefits and "sharing the burdens" of negative impacts by human activities.

by | July 25, 2023

Filed Under Bycatch | Congress | Management | NPFMC

Points to ‘entrenched disparities’ among fishery users, community inequities

Communities do not share equitably in the benefits provided by the ocean or equitably bear the burden of the negative impacts

Thousands of people from Alaska and elsewhere responded to a request for input on the US government’s new Ocean Justice Strategy. Its Ocean Policy Committee (OPC) asked for public guidance by July 24 on ways the US “can advance just and equitable access to, and management and use of, the ocean, the coasts, and the Great Lakes.”

The OPC is a Congressionally mandated, Cabinet-level interagency committee codified by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 to coordinate federal actions on ocean issues. Its ultimate goal aims “to identify barriers and opportunities to fully integrate environmental justice principles into ocean-related activities of the Federal Government.”

The June 8 Federal Register posting that announced the timeframe for feedback stated: “From the air we breathe to the food we eat, the ocean touches every aspect of our lives. Coastlines are home to approximately 40 percent of the US population  and as it sustains and connects us, the ocean is woven into our cultures and communities.”

It adds that while many US communities have thrived in recent decades, many others have been left behind.

“Communities do not share equitably in the benefits provided by the ocean or equitably bear the burden of the negative impacts of human activities associated with the ocean: climate change, sea level rise and coastal flooding, increased storm intensity, pollution, overfishing, loss of habitat biodiversity, and other threats.”

federal register, june 8, 2023

The Register notice adds: “Communities with environmental justice concerns face entrenched disparities that are often the legacy of racial discrimination and marginalization, redlining, exclusionary zoning, and other discriminatory decisions or patterns…Communities experiencing environmental injustices also include geographically dispersed and mobile populations, such as migrant fishers or those who have been displaced by environmental hazards or inequitable development practices.”

The Ocean Policy Committee requested input on definitions of “ocean justice,” barriers, opportunities, research and knowledge gaps, new tools and practices and partnerships and collaborations.

Calls for Action!

By the July 24 comment deadline, many organizations and thousands of other signatories called for action.   

A letter by SalmonState, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and The Boat Company stated: “Alaska’s tidal shoreline measures over 46,600 miles, longer than the shorelines of all the lower 48 states combined. However, these Alaska coastal communities and fisheries are being threatened in many ways including climate change, habitat loss, and federal fisheries management practices that allow waste and excessive harvest.”

It continued: “There is grave concern from Alaska’s small boat, direct target commercial fishery participants, sport and recreational fishermen and guides, and local community subsistence users regarding the management of Alaska federal fisheries and bycatch in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, specifically Alaska salmon, halibut, and crab populations showing the stress of climate change. The issue of bycatch in federal fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska goes hand in hand with the environmental injustice Alaskans and Alaska Natives are suffering.”

The group statement adds that Alaska subsistence users, small boat fishery participants and sport operators have all foregone multiple fishing seasons due to the declining runs of Chinook and chum salmon to their natal waters. Meanwhile, the trawl fleet continues to harvest significant amounts of these species as bycatch and “only the trawl fleet has not faced caps or fishing restrictions.”

The letter says that “our current management system is too slow to respond to unprecedented changes, which amplifies the negative impacts to our community-based fisheries.” It adds that “requests to the NPFMC for action have been rejected.”

As an example, a letter to Governor Dunleavy signed by over 400 people highlighted the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) policy that allows for roll-overs of  more than 1,300 Chinook salmon as bycatch between trawl sectors in the Gulf of Alaska.

“Chinook bycatch being rolled over to another trawl sector to kill and discard is unconscionable when many Alaskans are foregoing subsistence, sport and commercial harvest. During this time of crisis, minimizing Chinook bycatch must take priority over optimizing trawl harvest,” the signers said.

The Alaska groups and signatories also point out that Alaska Natives and communities do not have equal access to the NPFMC process, nor do they have adequate representation on the Council.

 “Council seats are disproportionately held by representatives with ties to the pollock trawl fishery and a situation has evolved where those with financial interest in the pollock trawl fishery have the means and resources to hire scientists, lobbyists, and other experts to engage in the Council process to a degree where their perspective dominates. Alaska Native entities and communities, small-boat fishermen, and sport and charter fishers do not have the resources or expertise to participate in the NPFMC meetings in the same manner.”

However, they pointed out, the NPFMC decisions directly affect all other users.

The statements conclude that “the disproportionate management decisions that burden the conservation of Alaska’s salmon, halibut, and crab stocks landing on Alaska’s indigenous subsistence users, sport fishermen, and small boat, direct target commercial fishery participants must be addressed.”

The Ocean Policy Committee stated that it will develop an Ocean Justice Strategy in consultation with tribes, territorial, state, and local governments, indigenous communities, the private sector, and the public.

Membership of the Ocean Policy Committee

Office of Science and Technology Policy (Co-chair)

Council on Environmental Quality (Co-chair)

Secretary of State 

Secretary of Defense

Attorney General 

Secretary of the Interior 

Secretary of Agriculture 

Secretary of Commerce 

Secretary of Transportation 

Secretary of Energy 

Secretary of Homeland Security 

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency 

Director of the Office of Management and Budget 

Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration 

Director of the National Science Foundation 

Director of National Intelligence 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 

Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere 

Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) 

Commandant of the Coast Guard 

Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs 

Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism

Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy 

Assistant to the President for Economic Policy 

A representative from the Office of the Vice President designated by the Vice President

Such other officers or employees of the Federal Government as the Co-Chairs may from time to time designate

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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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