Reining in AK bycatch gains momentum: A progress report

Focus now is on bycatch of salmon, crab and halibut; herring and other species also will soon be reviewed.

by | November 7, 2023

Several measures already are on state and federal dockets

Increased electronic monitoring …a chum salmon bycatch cap for pollock trawlers…protections for Kodiak Tanner crabs…better estimates of halibut discards…unobserved crab deaths caused by fishing gears…a review of open and closed fishing areas…utilizing bycatch…

Those are just some of the bycatch reduction measures that already are making advances since the State started calling for solutions two years ago. Many more are included in an easy to read Progress Report just released by the state’s Bycatch Advisory Council (BAC).

The six-member BAC was created in March 2023 by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to advance over three years the recommendations made by a Bycatch Task Force established in December 2021 by Governor Mike Dunleavy.  The recommendations advise on ways to reduce bycatch across major fisheries and gear types within three realms: state engagement, research and management.

“I am still amazed at the work we’ve accomplished in such a short time. Every member rolled up their sleeves,” said BAC chair Linda Kozak of Kodiak.

Other Alaskan BAC members are John Jensen, Kevin Delaney, Brian Gabriel, Stephanie Madsen and Karma Ulvi. All were former members of the now-disbanded Bycatch Task Force.

“I am so grateful to the members of both groups for their willingness to participate and help the State move forward on these important issues,” said Rachel Baker, ADF&G Deputy Commissioner. “I think the Task Force recommendations were comprehensive and covered the suite of bycatch issues I have been hearing over the past several years, particularly for federal fisheries.  Now the Bycatch Council is providing valuable expertise to help the State prioritize and move forward with implementation of Task Force recommendations.”

 Simply put, bycatch is unintentionally caught fish or shellfish that are unwanted or can’t be sold or kept by boats targeting other species. In Alaska, that adds up to more than 230 million pounds being discarded every year as required by federal law in waters managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), from three to 200 miles offshore.

Topping the Bycatch Advisory Council’s Progress Report is the State’s ramped up outreach to the public.

“We are very pleased that the State has been providing multiple ways for people to engage with policy makers,” said Kozak. “ From creation of the Bycatch Council to using virtual and in-person meetings before each NPFMC meeting, holding bycatch town hall meetings, and developing a website with meeting information, bycatch presentations and links. The State has been very responsive in reaching out for public input and advice.”

 Several of the bycatch recommendations already are on the dockets of state and federal policy makers.

Some examples:

To address the lack of monitoring in the Tanner crab and pot cod fisheries, the State will introduce a bill to the Alaska Legislature in 2024 to allow the use of electronic monitoring on vessels fishing in state managed waters (out to three miles).

The Alaska Legislature also plans final action in 2024 to remove the sunset of the Education Tax Credit Program and expand it to include gear modifications or technology improvements that help reduce bycatch.

In the federal management arena, in October the NPFMC initiated a discussion paper to review protective action for Tanner crab in the Kodiak area and it is on the agenda for the December 2023 meeting. The NPFMC also initiated a discussion paper to require 100% observer coverage in two statistical areas around Kodiak Island for trawl and pot gears to better quantify what is coming over the rails.

“I know the public is disheartened by the slow moving progress, but the process is designed to be methodical,” Kozak explained. “With federal managers, they start with a discussion, then an initial review followed by a preferred option for final analysis. It allows for fine tuning and gives ample opportunity for the public to engage. It is very different from the state Board of Fisheries process where action can be taken all in one meeting.”

The NPFMC also has partially addressed the need for a regulation that would require pelagic (mid-water) trawlers and trawl tender vessels in the Gulf of Alaska to have 100% electronic monitoring.

Many of Alaska’s fishing regions have strictly defined open and closed areas for trawling that have not been reviewed for decades. That includes large swaths in the Bristol Bay region where red king crab mate and molt. The NPFMC is following the recommendation to develop more flexible fishing options, and is considering closing crab “savings” areas to all groundfish gear. An initial review is scheduled for February 2024.

Winter tagging studies of critical crab habitat have been funded and conducted by ADF&G and the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers to determine seasonal crab movement. A  workshop was held in October 2023 to “determine if trawl performance standards are enforceable and if not, what solutions might be considered.”

Regarding salmon bycatch, the NPFMC in April 2023 initiated an analysis on developing a chum cap to reduce bycatch in the trawl pollock fishery in the Bering Sea. Research continues to determine the origins of chum and Chinook salmon taken as trawl bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, and a Western Alaska Chinook salmon tagging and species model is under development.

For halibut, finding better ways to estimate total removals and discard mortality is considered a priority by both the NPFMC and the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), which sets annual catch limits.   

And spurred on by nine orcas that were taken as trawl bycatch earlier this year while feeding on discarded halibut, the NPFMC in October requested an interagency workgroup to review their methods of estimating halibut deaths with a focus on marine mammals feeding on discards.

Utilizing bycatch?

Another task force recommendation calls for the State “to support taking incremental measures to improve uses of high value bycatch species” that are required by law to be discarded. That also includes the role that processors play, as they control what can or cannot be processed from each fishing vessel.

That has raised eyebrows over concerns about “putting a value” on bycatch, especially from subsistence users and small boat operators.   

“People in Western Alaska, for example,  are concerned about continuing to go without salmon but the salmon taken as bycatch could be sold or donated,” said BAC member Brian Gabriel.

The BAC has created a working group “to investigate the logistical, regulatory, economic, and political issues that would need to be addressed,” the Progress Report says.  The NPFMC also approved a motion in October 2023 to support a discussion paper on bycatch utilization by NOAA Fisheries.   

Looking ahead

Going forward, much of the momentum on any of the bycatch recommendations depends on the availability of agency staff time, which is already stretched thin, and funding for research and implementations.

Those constraints limited the scope of the task force and advisory council to look at bycatch of just three high value species: halibut, salmon and crab.

 “We simply did not have the ‘band width’ to include all species, such as bycatch of herring or sablefish,” Kodiak explained, adding that the BAC has formed a subcommittee to begin doing so.

Kozak said many of the advancements will be based on the interest and input from harvesters and other stakeholders.

And while bycatch in Alaska has become a growing concern from Ketchikan to Congress, Kozak said: “So far, the public has not taken advantage to testify and share ideas.”

 The BAC acts as a direct conduit to ADF&G decision-makers, she said, and people can get updates and provide input at any time at dfg.dcf.bycatchreview@alaska.gov.

 “Things will gel and we will be able to give the State ideas of what to address next,” Kozak said, adding that creating an Alaska bycatch policy is high on the list. It currently has none.  

“We are considering development of a State bycatch policy and will be looking for input on the scope and structure of that policy at future ADF&G bycatch town hall meetings,” said Rachel Baker. The next bycatch town hall is scheduled for November 27 in Homer.

Find the Progress Reports on state engagement, research and management at the ADF&G Home Page under Fisheries. The three reports are linked at the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force Reference Library.

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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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