Alaska Native, Mary Sattler Peltola campaigned largely on fixing Alaska’s broken and depleted fisheries. As a new U.S. House of Representatives & member of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committe, Peltola is now in a position to fix a largely outdated Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The legislation was greatly needed to help keep foreign fleets off our fishing grounds and when passed in 1976 did that and more to bring control to our fisheries. But now, according to Peltola’s campaign platform and promises she can help bring about much needed changes to save halibut and other species of fish. Since 1976 only two changes have been made to the MSFCMA. Peltola is pushing a bill that would change the balance of power to include two Tribal seats on the North Pacific Management Council, the governing body that manages fisheries in Alaska.
How this will help Sports Anglers
Peltola supports further reductions in bycatch quotas and supports fisheries conservation to ensure Alaska Native Villages have sustainable amounts of halibut for subsistence fishing which is vital to these remote locales that rely on subsistence to survive. Conservation and reduced trawling will have an effect that goes farther than just Alaska. Alaska supports the vast majority of halibut numbers and is the main area for juvenile halibut.
A History of Alaska Bottom Trawlers
For years halibut numbers have been in decline. In my opinion, Alaska bottom trawlers have over fished. Bottom trawlers use nets large enough to fit a football field with goal posts. With a fleet of nearly 250 strong and drags that last up to 10 hours it does not take long to destroy habitat on the ocean floor while literally scooping up every living thing. And while dragging, many species are broken up into pieces not counted as bycatch. This is the underwater equivalent of a D12 bulldozer mowing down the forest to collect mushrooms.
Bycatch is what this whole issue is about and why support of Peltola is vital to the future of halibut. The trawl fleet targets pollack, yellowfin sole and many other species and brings to market between 3 to 4 billion pounds of fish annually. Bycatch totals, species that are not “targeted” such as halibut, rockfish and crabs are brought to the deck of the boat in the nets and then discarded. These discards number into the millions of pounds. An exact number is not available because it is impossible to calculate or estimate that which is not seen. In other words, crab that have broken apart and fall through the nets are not counted. Many smaller species of fish that are maimed or killed that fall through are not counted either. That still leaves thousands upon thousands of bycatch fish that do make it to the deck that legally can’t be kept. These fish are discarded overboard. Nearly two-thirds of the total halibut caught in the Bering Sea since 2006 has been bycatch taken in trawler nets and thrown overboard. The trawl fleet also claims their targeted species of pollack are mid-level, but studies show that 40 to 70 percent of the time the nets contact bottom. Also note, there’s still an entire fleet that specifically targets the bottom — all the time.
These factory trawlers do have an observer program in place, but that system is questionable, in my opinion. Workers who have worked on these trawlers have claimed to wait until the observers are not looking to throw bycatch overboard. In many cases the observers are in their bunk seasick. Observers obviously can’t witness everything that happens aboard a trawler. So, it becomes a cat and mouse situation, observers vs. commercial fishermen. Obviously, this system is flawed and ripe for dishonesty.
It is beyond my comprehension why our government would allow such a wasteful type of commercial fishing. Each pass of the net dragging on the ocean bottom destroys SeaLife and the fragile ecosystem that takes decades to rebuild. A very healthy and strong trawler lobby does however spend millions to keep their fishery as profitable as possible. In this case, follow the money is an accurate statement.
Let’s take a closer look at how bottom trawlers are managed.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council manages this commercial fishery worth billions each year. Governors from Alaska, Washington and Oregon appoint members to the 11-member council. These members include representatives of commercial and sport fishing as well as agency personnel. Currently four of the members have direct ties to the trawl industry. Also note, the NPFM is part of NOAA which is run by the Department of Commerce. After the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1976 it mandated that fisheries be managed for “optimum yield.” If Peltola’s goal is achieved it will drastically redistribute the power structure of the NPFMC, hopefully in favor of conservation and less on allowing trawlers to continually destroy bottom habitat while killing off vast numbers of halibut as bycatch.
As an example of the trawl fleets true intention, profit over conservation or the future of the halibut fishery, they continually drag Alaska’s closed zone in Area 4E. This area was created in the 1970s because it is a halibut nursery filled with juvenile halibut that weigh 4 to 6 pounds. No user group within the International Pacific Halibut Commission authority can fish in this zone. The zone was put into place as a conservation measure and for the future of halibut stocks. If you are wondering why the trawl fleet can fish, this closed zone it is yet another example of mismanagement by NPFMC and NOAA. You see, IPHC has no authority over the trawl fleet. While IPHC’s management of the halibut controls commercial and sport fishing directed at halibut, it has no governing authority over the trawl fleet. Makes no sense to me and further puts a spotlight on this mismanaged trawl fishery.
Bycatch is measured in pounds, not numbers of fish. A bycatch of 1,000 pounds of halibut could equal anywhere from 10 100-pound halibut or 250 4-pound halibut. When measured in numbers of fish versus pounds perhaps the general public might be more sympathetic of this destructive method of commercial fishing. In 2017 the trawl fleet had a bycatch of 319,000 halibut in the closed zone — the future of halibut recruits in the fishery. Many anglers and conservationists claim bottom dragging is unethical.
Let’s hope Representative Peltola succeeds and further reduces bycatch quotas.