‘This should have happened a long time ago’: Hope and skepticism ahead of first meeting of Governor’s Bycatch Task Force
Earlier this month, Governor Mike Dunleavy named 11 people to the Alaska Bycatch Task Force, which will work to recommend solutions to the thorny problem of bycatch in state and federal fisheries. from Alaska. Some see the force as a possible turning point, but others say they are skeptical of what it can accomplish.
Bycatch — or species accidentally caught while targeting another fish — has been a hot button issue in Alaska for decades. But it came to the fore last year when Alaska Native organizations and fishing groups called for dramatic reductions in bycatch of halibut, crab and salmon at federal fisheries meetings.
The state legislature took notice, convening a special bycatch meeting in mid-November. Also in mid-November, Governor Mike Dunleavy announced the formation of the Alaska Bycatch Task Force.
On the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, subsistence and small-scale commercial salmon fishing was severely reduced or completely closed last year. That same year, federal data shows Bering Sea trawlers caught more than half a million chum, pink and coho salmon and nearly 14,000 king salmon. In the Gulf of Alaska, groundfish fishermen caught more than 17,000 chinook salmon as bycatch. This fish cannot be sold, although a portion of the bycatch is donated.
For more than a decade, commercial and subsistence fishermen in western Alaska felt the effects of declining salmon migrations and had no task force to address the problem.
In a recent tribal listening session with the National Marine Fisheries Service, John Lamont of Lamont Slough on the lower Yukon River told federal fisheries managers that he supports the idea of a group of bycatch work in Alaska.
“This should have happened a long time ago,” Lamont said, and called on the feds to follow suit: “I’m not sure if the feds are setting up a committee on bycatch to discuss of the same issues that are being raised today by all users all stakeholders in Alaska, whether in the southeast, the Aleutians, or the north, [in addition to] AYK (Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region). The impact of no fishing, no nets in the water last summer has really opened the eyes, I think, of politicians, managers and tribal leaders.
The state task force will study the impacts of bycatch on what it calls “high-value” state fisheries. The administrative decree establishing the force does not specify what it means by great value. Monetarily, this would include the state’s salmon and crab fisheries. The ordinance does not mention subsistence interests, but designates a place for a sports representative or for personal use. That seat went to a former head of ADF&G’s sportfishing division.
The task force will also make recommendations and advise state and federal agencies on how to address bycatch, although there isn’t much data on bycatch in state-run fisheries. He is also responsible for working to inform policy makers and the public about how bycatch affects Alaska’s fisheries.
The force will be chaired by Petersburg crab and halibut fisherman John Jensen. He also serves on the Alaska Fisheries Council, which sets most of the rules for fishing in state waters. Jensen also holds a voting seat on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which manages fisheries beyond the 3-mile line and in federal waters.
The 11 people named by Dunleavy cover a range of interests, although only one currently resides in one of the Indigenous communities where bycatch has arguably affected livelihoods the most.
The task force seat reserved for Alaska Native interests has been assigned to a non-Native consultant who represents two Alaska Native companies. And that led to some criticism.
“Looking at the makeup of the task force, I don’t think the tribal representation is really there,” says Brooke Woods, executive chair of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (YRITFC), a nonprofit representing 30 tribes along the Yukon River that advocates for tribal fishing rights and the protection and restoration of Yukon River salmon. She says she is skeptical that listening sessions or focus groups will bring about the change demanded by organizations like YRITFC.
“Honestly, I haven’t even encouraged the tribesmen to take another volunteer position to bring about change for themselves, their families, and their communities, because that’s just not fair,” Woods says. “You have non-Aboriginals in career positions who are supposed to do subsistence work, but there is no accountability. So it’s tough, these career-minded people earning an income with no accountability for subsistence management or politics and then asking an Alaskan native to volunteer.
The seat reserved for an Alaska Native organization will be filled by Duncan Fields, a Kodiak resident and former State House candidate who also served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He says he’s not a native of Alaska, but works closely with native and tribal organizations.
“I didn’t determine whether I was an adequate representative or not, the governor’s office did. And I appreciate that they thought I was qualified,” Fields said in an interview with KSTK.
He was recognized for his work by the Federation of Alaska Natives, who presented him with the Denali Award in 2004, an award recognizing a non-Native person who has made a significant contribution to the Alaska Native community.
“I understand the weight of responsibility, being a representative of ANCSA Indigenous Organizations, Corporations and Tribes,” Fields said. “I can’t be everything to everyone. And as you well know, there are big discrepancies both geographically and tribally on issues like bycatch. But I can be a listening ear.
Another Kodiak resident, salmon seiner Raymond May was nominated to fill the seat reserved for a salmon fisherman. May also holds statewide licenses for herring roe and crab, finfish and sablefish. May is a member of the Port Lions Native Village Council and a registered member of the Afognak Native Village.
Tommy Sheridan de Cordova, a fisheries consultant and former executive of Silver Bay Seafoods, has been nominated to fill the designated seat for a member of the general public and will serve as vice-chair of the task force. Sheridan also serves on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, an international organization dedicated to the conservation of salmon and other anadromous fish stocks.
A crab fisherman’s seat will go to Erik Velsko, a Homer-based crab fisherman who also fishes halibut and has a salmon fishing license in Bristol Bay. Velsko is also a member of the advisory committee of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Linda Kozak, based in Kodiak, will occupy the designated seat for a halibut fisherman. Kozak is the United Fishermen of Alaska representative for the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, a longline industry group, and is a fishing consultant and sport fisherman.
Mike Flores will occupy the designated seat for a charter operator. Flores owns and operates Ninilchik Charters – a fishing and hunting operation on the Kenai Peninsula. He also serves on the board of the state’s Big Game Business Services.
Kevin Delaney, the former manager of Sport Fish’s ADF&G division, will fill the personal-use or sport-fishing seat on the task force. Delaney is a resident of Windsor, Colorado and is a retired consultant specializing in fishing consulting and wealth management.
And the seat of a mayor of a coastal Alaskan community will be filled by Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel. KDLL reported earlier this month that Gabriel is a lifelong angler and has experience guiding and sport fishing on the Kenai River.
The working group also has designated seats for a representative from the trawling industry and a representative from a community group (CDQ) that receives a share of the Bering Sea trawl catch for economic development in the west. from Alaska.
Ragnar Alstrom of Alukanuk, executive director of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, will fill the community group seat on the task force. YDFDA represents six Aboriginal villages at the mouth of the Yukon River and owns shares in several pollock trawlers and other catching-processing vessels targeting crab and cod in the Bering Sea. The organization has also funded and helped organize salmon research in the lower Yukon River.
At-Sea Processors Association trawler group executive director Stephanie Madsen will take the seat designated for her industry. Madsen, based in Juneau, was previously chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Two cabinet members from the Dunleavy administration – the Fish and Game and Commerce Commissioners – will also be voting members of the task force.
And legislative leaders will nominate two legislators to serve in non-voting seats. House Speaker Louise Stutes announced earlier this month (January 7) that she would appoint former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham state lawmaker, to one non-voting legislative seats.
Fish & Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told KSTK in November that the task force will meet monthly until the end of this year, when it will submit a report with recommendations to decision-makers in the states and the federal government. The first meeting of the working group is scheduled for January 28 and will be open to the public via videoconference.
Contact KSTK at [email protected] or (907) 874-2345.