OPINION: Trawling is the most wasteful fishery in Alaska and it is devastating our oceans

"Keeping trawlers rich is more important to decision-makers than stopping or reducing bycatch — and its impact on Alaskans."

by | December 8, 2023

“The State and NPFMC are not managing for sustainability. They are managing for maximum production of pollock and whitefish.”

By Adam Cuthriell
December 7, 2023

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang recently responded to an opinion piece from traditional fisherman Brooke Woods, commercial fisherman Linda Behnken and sport fisherman Nanci Morris Lyon with a truly impressive amount of gaslighting.

The original opinion piece from Woods, Behnken and Morris Lyon is one former Board of Fish Chairman Karl Johnstone also responded to, calling the fishermen’s unified point of view “remarkable” and the piece “refreshing, candid, and accurate.”

Those of us who pay attention to the massive waste and destruction of trawlers, also known as draggers, were shaking our heads as Vincent-Lang attempted to mislead us into believing the state of Alaska and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are managing trawlers sustainably. We were not fooled. And to ensure other Alaskans aren’t, here is the truth beneath and between Vincent-Lang’s words.

In his second paragraph, Vincent-Lang wrote, “The council adopted hard caps for chinook salmon in the Bering Sea trawl pollock fisheries that vary depending upon the expected returns to western Alaska rivers.”

This opening sentence failed to inform the public that this adopted hard cap on pollock fisheries allows 60,000 chinook salmon to be killed. It was set after Bering Sea pollock trawlers killed more than 370,000 chinook between 2003 and 2007.

Vincent-Lang wrote: “When expected returns are low, the caps are adjusted downward.”

What he failed to say is that “adjusted down” means trawlers in the Bering Sea are still authorized to bycatch and kill 45,000 chinook salmon — even if runs are crashing across Alaska and traditional, directed commercial, sport and charter chinook fisheries are completely shut down. And that’s just pollock fisheries in the Bering Sea, not other trawlers, and not in the Gulf of Alaska.

Vincent-Lang wrote: “The fishing industry has stepped forward to implement chinook salmon avoidance measures that hold each vessel accountable for limiting bycatch to below the caps. In fact, (he says) the fleet is well below their caps, recognizing the need to rebuild these stocks.”

This sounds impressive, but the hard truth is the pollock fleet is allowed to catch and throw away tens of thousands of chinook salmon annually under this “lower cap.”

The chinook population is collapsing. Of course bycatch is lower. If no chinook at all returned to western Alaska rivers, trawlers will really cut their bycatch.

Beyond that, Behnken, Woods and Morris Lyon made clear a few things Vincent-Lang conveniently ignored. Here are those and a few more:

“Midwater” trawlers are allowed to trawl in areas protected for reasons of conservation — and where other gear types are not allowed to fish — despite the studies making clear that their massive, heavy nets actually drag the bottom, likely destroying habitat and crushing crab and other species in a way that does not get hauled to the surface for observation. According to agency studies, this happens somewhere between 70-90% of the time.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council contains a voting majority of people with an economic interest in the trawl fleet. Despite years of advocacy, and the fact that Gov. Mike Dunleavy appoints most of the council’s representatives, the council contains zero tribal representatives.

No matter how Alaska’s commissioner of Fish and Game tries to spin it, the trawl fleet is the largest, most wasteful fishery in Alaska, bycatching and mostly dumping overboard 141 million pounds of dead marine life each year, according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s own report to the Alaska Legislature.

adam cuthriell

The state and North Pacific Fishery Management Council are not managing for sustainability. They are managing for maximum production of pollock and whitefish — to the detriment, if not decimation, of salmon and ultimately the well-being of Alaska families.

The council says so itself, writing “When constraints such as high bycatch rates emerge, vessel operators do not have the option to cease fishing completely because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable.”

In other words, keeping trawlers rich is more important to decision-makers than stopping or reducing bycatch — and its impact on Alaskans.

That is the truth, no matter what Vincent-Lang claims. And it will stay the truth until we make them change it.

Adam Cuthriell is an Alaskan, a sport fisherman and the owner of FishHound Expeditions.

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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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