By Alexus Kwachka
For The Cordova Times
Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently announced the formation of a shiny new “task force,” charged with studying the impacts of bycatch on Alaska fisheries and making recommendations to policy makers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has supposedly been doing exactly this for nearly half a century with its permanent voting seat on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, or NPFMC.
While allowable bycatch limits have rarely changed over the past few decades, state and federal managers have eliminated and curtailed Alaskans’ access to important species. These fish are intercepted as bycatch and thrown away by the trawl fleet. The abundance of species like king salmon, halibut and crab have plummeted far faster than the allowable trawl bycatch of them has been reduced. There is no denying the harmful, cumulative impacts of this practice on the people and communities of Alaska.
This gross mismanagement has been noticed by Alaskans, and we are understandably angry. Clearly, the Dunleavy campaign has felt the heat coming from a diverse and powerful consortium ranging from urban Republican state legislators to Western Alaska tribes; from small-boat fishermen’s organizations to the Alaska Outdoor Council.
So, Gov. Dunleavy has responded by creating a task force — and here’s what Dunleavy’s new bycatch task force will have the power to do: nothing. An obviously symbolic non-action without any teeth, intended to buy time and political cover until the 2022 gubernatorial election. It is a political stunt which replaces meaningful action with more bureaucracy; a procedural wormhole, where the time and resources of hard-working folks will be held captive. Meanwhile, bad actors, many of whom the governor himself appointed, will continue to enable the mass giveaway of Alaska’s fish resources in real time. On its face, it is nothing more than a delay tactic, thrown to the little people, with the hope that we are all stupid enough to believe that he actually did something about the issue.
Freezers on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are devoid of salmon for winter. Access to salmon and halibut for small-scale commercial fisheries has been severely limited in many regions of the state over the past decade. Charter operators are feeling the double-edged sword of both COVID-era bookings and reductions in allowable catch for their target species. Meanwhile, the politically-connected trawl fleets continue on, dragging their massive, indiscriminate nets all over the most ecologically valuable regions of Alaska’s coast, leaving behind them a graveyard of wanton waste and decimated habitat.
Here is what we need to do, governor: Tell the NPFMC to reduce bycatch and quit giving our resources away to Lower 48 entities. Make sure Alaska fishermen are whole and have access to fish. That goes for sport, commercial and, most importantly, subsistence fishermen.
Finally, the state of Alaska has controlling votes on the NPFMC. Instruct Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang to lead us through bycatch reductions that are meaningful and have a positive effect on all Alaska fishermen. Ted Stevens set it up that way for a reason.
If our governor can’t do better than this, we need to find one who can. Bycatch is on the ballot.
Alexus Kwachka is a commercial fisherman who was raised in Fairbanks, where he had his first fishing job on the Yukon River. He currently fishes in Bristol Bay and around Kodiak, where he lives.