Current guidelines “are appropriate” and “no action” is recommended
“Fishing is the beating heart of Alaska…We must do all we can to sustain our great fisheries and ensure that our resources are managed to benefit Alaskans first and foremost,” Governor Mike Dunleavy said in January 2022, when amid much hope and hoopla, he accepted recommendations of the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force that he created by Administrative Order in 2021. The hardworking group met 45 times over the course of a full year and produced a comprehensive product.
Photo Credit: Matt Buxton
That was followed in 2023 by a new Bycatch Advisory Council per order of Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang. The Council’s goal over three years is to advance research and recommendations to rein in bycatch as outlined by the task force.
Fast forward to today
“The State recommends that NMFS take no action to revise the guidelines at this time” and “the current guidelines are appropriate for U.S. fisheries management and provide a suitable level of guidance for councils” and “revisions to the guidelines could significantly impact Alaska fisheries as well as the citizens and communities that rely on them.”
That about face is the state’s written testimony to NOAA Fisheries as federal managers make plans to dust off outdated fishing regulations that include reducing bycatch. The August 23 letter signed by Vincent-Lang mirrors that of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which accompanies the State’s letter.
The word “bycatch” does not even appear in the State of Alaska’s testimony!
ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang
Since 1976 all fishing in federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore, has been dictated by regulations outlined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The regulations, which some call the “10 Commandments of Fishing,” are formally titled National Standards.
The Standards have not been updated for 17 years. NOAA Fisheries and many lawmakers say it’s time to redo three of the rules to reflect today’s changing realities.
NOAA Fisheries stated that changes in environmental conditions, shifting distributions of fish stocks and equity and environmental justice concerns are at the forefront. “These and other events suggest a need to revisit the guidelines to ensure they remain appropriate for current U.S. fisheries management,” the agency said.
The three National Standards NOAA is eyeing include:
NS4 which deals with allocating or assigning fishing privileges fairly among all users and “shall not discriminate between residents of different states;”
NS8 which focuses on taking into account “the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities by utilizing economic and social data … in order to (a) provide for the sustained participation of such communities, and (b) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities;” and,
NS9 which deals with bycatch and calls for “revisions to the guidelines that could encourage provisions to incentivize reduction of waste, including use of innovations that decrease bycatch, decrease bycatch mortality, or increase use while dis-incentivizing catch of overfished or low productivity stocks (e.g., allowing a fishery to retain and sell what would otherwise be required to be discarded either through purchasing quota share or other types of compensation; or allowing bycatch to be donated to food shelters so that it is not wasted but also does not lead to economic gains).”
AK “can’t understand” why revisions are necessary
Commissioner Vincent-Lang wrote: “The State does not believe that revisions to the guidelines would help councils, fishery participants, and the public address the ongoing fishery management challenges associated with climate change and equity and environmental justice.”
The State letter concludes: “In closing, the State has not identified a need for revisions to the guidelines for implementing National Standards 4, 8 and 9 of the MSA. We urge NMFS to focus efforts on executing core science and management activities to help councils and fishery participants address fisheries management issues related to climate change, equity and environmental justice and other critical issues facing fishery managers and participants.”
Ditto the NPFMC
Testimony by the NPFMC, which accompanies the State of Alaska letter, breaks down the thumbs down more thoroughly.
“Overall, the Council does not support revisions to the guidelines,” wrote Bill Tweit, NPFMC Vice Chair and Acting Chair. “The agency has not provided the Council with reason to believe that the existing guidelines are no longer appropriate for current U.S. fisheries management…”
The NPFMC letter devotes seven paragraphs to NS9/bycatch.
The NPFMC testimony touts that bycatch limits for Chinook salmon were first implemented in 1982 “and have become further restrictive and effective over time with changes to the fisheries and changes in the abundance of salmon stocks.” No mention that the NPFMC has voted against a chum cap amid fierce pushback by pollock trawlers.
Tweit adds that bycatch of herring, crab, and halibut also has been minimized “to the extent practicable” and limits “have been reviewed and reduced on a continuing basis, while still achieving optimum yield from the fisheries.”
The NPFMC letter adds that “The Council continues to focus on actions to minimize bycatch to the extent practicable in a manner that is equitable across different fisheries and gear types, especially for resources that are important for underserved communities.”
Profits over Protections
What Twiet omits in his bycatch comments is the frequent NPFMC language that puts the profits by Seattle-based trawlers over protecting the fishery resources.
For example, the NPFMC Environmental Impact Statement for the new Abundance Based Bycatch Halibut plan for the A80 fleet states: “When constraints such as high bycatch rates emerge, vessel operators to not have the option to cease fishing completely because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable.”
The “extent practicable” loophole
The term “to the extent practicable” is sprinkled throughout the NPFMC letter to NOAA. The language provides for lots of legal loopholes and many advocates want that wiggle room removed.
The NPFMC states that the word “practicable” includes “social and economic tradeoffs in policy decision making regarding management measures to reduce bycatch.”
Tweit concludes: “In sum, we believe that major revisions of the guidelines are not needed at this time, and we respectfully request that NOAA consider whether implementing guideline changes creates additional value for the Nation’s fisheries at a time when we have so many pressing needs and insufficient resources to address those needs.”
Certainly, the State of Alaska and the NPFMC point out some credible flaws in NOAA’s proposed changes to the fishing laws. But to so blatantly dismiss the need for modifications that could provide better resource and ecosystem protections makes their concerns and calls to mitigate wanton waste in Alaska’s fisheries appear as lip service.
The public can comment to NOAA Fisheries on the proposed changes to the three National Standards through September 12. As of September 3, only 19 comments were made. HERE is the link.
Pushback includes AK Native CDQ groups
More than 40 national and regional fishing industry groups and dozens of individual fishermen also sent NOAA and lawmakers a warning of potential consequences if the National Standards are changed.
In a joint letter earlier this year, they called the proposed changes to the MSA “overly partisan” and said it could throw the industry “into chaos.”
“Sustainable federal fisheries will be curtailed or shut down entirely. Waves of opportunistic litigation will create uncertainty. Seafood sector workers, including in remote coastal communities, will lose their jobs. Seafood buyers will run short on domestic inventory and be forced to procure more product from foreign sources. American consumers will see seafood prices spike at their local restaurants and grocery stores, and they will turn to less nutritious food options and proteins with far higher carbon footprints than wild seafood…Similarly, some of our nation’s biggest fisheries would meet the definition of forage fish in your legislation, needlessly requiring strict new limitations on directed fishing.”
Letter signers included four Alaska Native CDQ groups: Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, Coastal Villages Region Fund, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. Also, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, OBI Seafoods, Northern Seiners of Kodiak, United Catcher Boats, Groundfish Forum, Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, At-sea Processors Association, Alaska Groundfish Data Bank and Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association.
Send comments on the need to modernize the three National Standards to NOAA Fisheries by September 12. HERE is the link.