Commercial fishing and other boats are moored in the Homer Harbor in this file photo. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Commercial fishing and other boats are moored in the Homer Harbor in this file photo. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Seawatch: Bycatch becomes hot issue

Dunleavy forms bycatch task force.

The issue of bycatch by the trawl fleet in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska has been picking up steam and getting attention at the highest level of state government, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy readying a task force to study the issue while people on both sides of the issue trade volleys in the opinion pages.

The trawl fishery is managed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. There are 15 members, 11 voting and four non-voting, with seven of the voting members appointed by the secretary of commerce, head of NOAA Fisheries, based on recommendations from the governors of Alaska and Washington.

Critics contend that the appointments are highly political, with seats going to people who contribute heavily to the governors from those states, heavily weighted toward the trawl fleet with deep pockets.

People with deep ties to the trawl industry, including council member and former Chair Stephanie Madsen, who is also executive director of the At-Sea Processor’s Association, counter that the trawl fleet has reduced bycatch of Chinook salmon by 89% since 2010, and that on-board sampling shows that the vast majority of chum salmon, another species that has had disastrous returns in Western Alaska in recent years, are from hatcheries outside the U.S.

In a recent opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Madsen said, “All fisheries encounter non-target species. Our fleet goes to great lengths to target pollock and avoid other marine life. As a result of these efforts, more than 98% of what our vessels catch is pollock.”

However, while pollock is the largest fishery in the state in terms of poundage, it’s not the only trawl fishery with bycatch issues.

The Pacific cod fishery, as well as yellowfin sole and other trawl fisheries, have been able to exceed their bycatch quotas of halibut, black cod and crab by as much as 500% for several years.

The system needs to change, according to former council member and fisherman Buck Laukitis.

“It’s 10 times worse than what’s reported, when you actually see it, when you actually see tote after tote after tote of black cod on the back of trawlers being taken to sea to be dumped overboard. It’s disgusting.

“How can you be 500% over your quota and still be fishing?” he asked.

He said that the public has lost trust in the council and the state administration who is appointing people to the council.

Laukitis said that Dunleavy forming a bycatch task force is good in theory, but it’s only as good as who he appoints.

He added that Dunleavy got elected partly on the promise to shut down the commercial Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery, but neglected to realize that the main people behind that push, campaign contributors like Bob Penny, also had ties to the trawl industry.

“I think the governor realizes that he’s blown it on this issue,” Laukitis said.

Laukitis said that Dunleavy failed to understand who is on the “home team,” the smaller boat fleet that harvests higher-dollar product like halibut, crab, salmon and black cod.

Fisheries activist Hannah Heimbuch agreed.

“I appreciate the Governor’s willingness to take a closer look at bycatch issues, and how to build long-term solutions for them,” she said via email.

“A task force certainly has the potential to open the conversation further, especially if we create a clear pathway to get from input to action. However, as an observer of our fisheries management system and as a commercial fisherman myself, I hope that this new conversation through the task force doesn’t delay action on the absolutely critical issues already very clearly identified by Alaska’s fisheries stakeholders.

“Moving critical bycatch species, like halibut, from static to abundance-based caps. Designing management mechanisms to prevent millions of pounds of annual overages in incidental catch — like we’re seeing in sablefish or Pacific cod. Assessing and mitigating unobserved crab mortality, a persistent request from the crab fleet, which is in the midst of a major stock crash.

“These are issues we have been discussing for years in the policy-making process, which we have an existing policy pathway to address, around which there is no shortage of diverse public input. I hope as we take up a discussion on the task force about long-term solutions, we don’t hesitate to address what’s already on the table.”

Cristy Fry can be reached at

More in News

A mock-up of an A-Frame property that would be located across the street from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies Wynn Nature Center and used by the Homer Forest Charter School shows places for classroom yurts, a dormitory and kitchen, a parking area with bus parking and staff housing. The configuration was presented Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board of Education. (Via Homer Forest Charter School presentation to school board)
Efforts to open K-8 nature school in Homer delayed

Charter organizers proposed changing the school’s opening date from 2023 to 2024

Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai explains the ranked choice voting process as the results are tallied during an Alaska Public Media broadcast, Nov. 23, 2022, at her office in Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Elections division head to step down Friday

Fenumiai made the decision to retire in September, a division spokesperson said

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19 cases continue to spike

Cases rise in Kenai Peninsula Borough for 3rd straight week

Gingerbread houses are displayed at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Gingerbread houses rule

10th annual gingerbread house competition returns to Kenai Chamber of Commerce

Kinley Ferguson tells Santa Claus what she wants for Christmas during Christmas in the Park festivities on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Soldotna Creek Park in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Christmas in the Park welcomes the holiday season to Soldotna

Santa headlines celebration with caroling, Nativity, cocoa and fireworks

Children decorate Christmas cookies, part of Christmas Comes to Nikiski festivities on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Nikiski Community Recreation Center in Nikiski, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Christmas crafts and Santa photos

Nikiski holds start of annual December celebration

A Kenai Peninsula Food Bank truck in the Food Bank parking lot on Aug. 4, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Food Bank fundraiser to auction Legos, offer Santa photos to pets

Bark, Block n’ Bowl will take place on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, seated left, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom sign their oaths of office during the inauguration ceremony, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. Dunleavy, a Republican, last month became the first Alaska governor since Democrat Tony Knowles in 1998 to win back-to-back terms. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Dunleavy, Dahlstrom take oaths of office

Gov. Dunleavy was reelected during the Nov. 8 general election

Most Read