Representative Mary Peltola talks about fishing in Alaska and the big trawler debate

“It's kind of a huge, industry-run experiment at sea where we take a bunch of fish out of the ocean every year and see what kind of system is left,” said Jon Warrenchuk, chief scientist at Oceana.


A recent poll found that 70 percent of Alaskans would support a complete ban on industrial pollock fishing off the state's coast. In line with that overwhelming support, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola of Alaska introduced a bill last week that sparked backlash from leaders of industrial trawler fleets that would be affected by the federal law if it were enacted.

The statewide bill introduced on May 22 is not a ban, but a bipartisan response to the depletion of various marine species caused by simultaneous interactions with climate change and industrial pollock trawler operations. According to a poll by Data for Progress, about two-thirds of Alaskans would support a ban on industrial pollock trawler fishing off Alaska's coast. Pollock industry representatives, however, called the bill out of step with the latest science.

“The fishing industry is highly complex, which is why Congress has created regional councils to issue regulations based on [a] “We have a deep understanding of the facts and the science,” said Eric Deakin, CEO of the Coastal Villages Region Fund. Voting members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council were accused of having “an economic interest in the trawl fleet.”

Representatives of the scientific community, salmon and crab fishermen, and communities that depend on salmon fishing are questioning the effectiveness of the “science-based” strategies implemented by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council over the past decades.

“It's kind of a huge, industry-run experiment at sea where we take a bunch of fish out of the ocean every year and see what kind of system is left,” said Jon Warrenchuk, chief scientist at Oceana.

According to marine conservation organization Salmonstate, pollock trawlers remove about 1.4 billion kilograms of biomass from the Bering Sea each year on a ten-year average and catch about 64 million kilograms of salmon, crab, halibut and other species as bycatch each year on a ten-year average as they target large schools of pollock.

Democratic U.S. Representative Jared Huffman of California, one of the initiators of Peltola's new bill, introduced the Magnuson-Steven Reauthorization Act, which, among many other changes, includes voting tribal seats on the NPFMC, which is intended to strengthen the inclusion of traditional knowledge in fisheries management.

“Why not try some of the experiments suggested by people who are feeling the impacts?” asks Warrenchuk, pointing to subsistence communities that have suffered from the collapse of salmon stocks.

“'Stop bycatch for a while and see what happens.' That's not unreasonable from a Western scientific perspective. You need a control, you need something to compare it to. How do you compare consecutive yields when there is bycatch to consecutive yields when there is no bycatch?” Warrenchuk asked, expressing a common concern in the fishing, subsistence and scientific communities.”

[Reporter note] The law, National Standard Two of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, states: “Relevant local and traditional knowledge should be obtained, where appropriate, and considered in evaluating the best available scientific information.”

Q: Should equal rule between tribes and the federal and state governments be more widely known and enforced?


Q: Has the government assessed and defined industry's interactions with natural resources within a limited and changing framework?

There is bound to be human error; that is very real, and many of our studies are very specific or cover a very short period of time. One of my concerns is that as someone who has been in the fisheries for about 45 years, I have a different kind of baseline or time horizon, and many of the managers present these very shortened time horizons to stakeholders, like the last ten years, to make it look like our [salmon] The yield is not as bad as it seems. But if you are 50 years old and have been fishing for 44 years, you have a different understanding of abundance than someone who has only been fishing for 5 or 10 years.

Q: Would you say that the way we treat and live off the ecology is a growing concern in America, and particularly in Alaska today?

I believe that. I think there are people who have always known that we are all related, that every organism on Earth is related. There are butterfly effects that you can see in everything. But there are a lot of people who pigeonhole everything, and I think that's a really good example of single species management and how at the end of the day it doesn't serve people best; it doesn't serve our ecosystem best. If we have a species that is anadromous [migrating up rivers from the sea to spawn]like with salmon, we're in a situation where the Department of Fish and Game says, “This is happening in the ocean, this is not our jurisdiction,” and then the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council says, “These are anadromous fish that are actually native to the river, and this is not our jurisdiction.” So they can both kind of pass the buck to each other or outsource a problem outside of any jurisdiction or responsibility. So they're not being managed in the interests of the people who depend on them, or they're being managed reciprocally. I don't really know how to explain this, but you know, talking about a single disease in isolation seems like a futile exercise because everything is related to it.

Q: Would you say that the sheer speed with which our environmental and fisheries policies have changed in recent decades shows that mistakes have been made?

I am not willing to waste time assigning blame, finding fault or calling things mistakes. I think that [it] is a perfect storm. I think, yes, 30 years of tons of bycatch of juvenile salmon, halibut, [and] Crabs have to have an impact after 30 years, but we also see that this is exacerbated by ocean acidification and by one, two or three degrees of temperature increase. [and] Lack of ice. We haven't had good snowpack in Alaska for five years, which definitely impacts salmon. But I definitely think we had a different paradigm. And now we're in a new paradigm and we need to course correct. Our management system can't be as slow as it has been. [and] This was a problem on the major rivers of Alaska.

This is a problem of reducing the amount and size of the crop and not meeting the crop needs of families. This has been a problem in Norton Sound for 30 years. [and] This has been a problem on the Yukon River for ten years. This has been a problem on the Kuskokwim River for ten or 15 years, and we have not done enough to keep up with these rapid ecological changes. Now, 30, 20, 15 years later, we don't have another ten years to debate this or talk about blame or mistakes. We just have to pivot quickly.

“It’s a kind of real-time knowledge.”

The funny thing about this term is that it makes it seem like it's all historical. But if you look at the academic definitions of traditional knowledge, this term also refers to what is happening now and what will happen in the future.

It's real-time knowledge. On the Kuskoquim River, the Department of Fish and Game, which has been our management agency since the '60s and '70s, now uses last year's population to forecast the upcoming Chinook salmon season. Previously, they did it by parent year, depending on the species. [it is] sometimes five years, sometimes six years, sometimes four years, and they look at what they have in abundance and what the data looked like at that time, and then they look at the breeding year.

It's become so unreliable that the Department of Agriculture now only looks at the previous season and uses that to estimate the stock for the coming season. When I worked for the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, the season managers, the fisheries commissioners, who are from the river, people who have spent every summer of their lives on this river, in their fish camps, their parents have spent every summer of their lives on this river, in their fish camps, their grandparents. … What some of our commissioners were looking at as a forecast for the upcoming Chinook migration was the return of the migratory birds.

So the return of Chinook salmon occurs in the same way that the return of Canada geese occurs. There is a 100 percent correlation that I have personally observed since 2017. So when the Canada geese are there early, the Chinook salmon are there early; when they are in large numbers, the Chinook salmon are in large numbers. A few years ago, I … noticed that the Canada geese migration was returning home, then it slowed down a lot and a lot more Canada geese returned in another wave, and that's what the Chinook salmon were doing.

That understanding, that connection between species and between return migrations, has been really valuable in determining whether there might be 12 or 18 hours more time to fish, and they have not missed their escape target so far.

When I talk about traditional knowledge, that's the kind of traditional knowledge that's really helpful because our western science is fabulous, it's wonderful, we've made so much progress thanks to western science, but there are still a lot of gaps. Right now, there's a complete lack of understanding in salmon management about the timing and strength of the run. There are just so many gaps and traditional knowledge can help fill those gaps.

Anna Harden

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