Solutions to the Bycatch Blame Game

by Mar 20, 2023Fisheries, Magazine

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

As some fisheries shrink, often there are not enough fish to go around. Is bycatch at the root of the problem, or are there issues that need to be addressed?

Anglers talk about “the one that got away,” but just as much of a headache for commercial fishers is the one caught accidentally. Bycatch occurs when fishermen unintentionally catch fish or other marine species that they do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep. What ends up in someone’s trap, net, or longline might be someone else’s harvest, gone to waste.

The issue of bycatch has grown more important as some fisheries get smaller and those who depend on the fish for their livelihood or survival find that there are not enough fish to go around. This raises the question of whether bycatch is at the root of the problem or if other issues facing fisheries must be addressed.

How Big a Problem Is Bycatch?

According to Karla Bush, extended jurisdiction program manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, bycatch occurs in all fisheries, so how “big” the issue is depends on a number of factors, including what species are taken as bycatch, the economic or cultural value of that species, current abundance levels, and what proportion of all removals of that species is taken as bycatch.

Naknek_gillnetters

Commercial gillnetters fishing for sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Naknek River.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

“For species such as halibut, the proportion taken as bycatch in recent years is at historically low levels. For other species, like sablefish, bycatch in some fisheries has increased because the sablefish population has increased,” she explains. “For snow crab and many of the salmon species (such as Chinook [king salmon] and chum salmon) that have been negatively impacted by recent marine heatwaves in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, all removals—including bycatch—becomes a greater concern because there are fewer of them.”
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Bycatch is monitored in a combination of ways, through at-sea observers, electronic monitoring, seafood processing plant observers, logbooks, and fish tickets.

“In the Bering Sea, approximately 94 percent of all catch is observed, including 99 percent of all trawl catch,” Bush explains. “In the Gulf of Alaska, 40 to 50 percent of all catch is observed across all gear types.”

She adds that most of the groundfish harvest (cod, halibut, or sole) occurs under the full coverage monitoring program with either a human aboard or a camera turned on at all times. In the Alaska pollock fishery, cameras are used to make sure that nothing is discarded, and all of the catch is sampled when it is delivered.

“Most fixed-gear fisheries statewide and trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska are monitored under the partial coverage observer program and have either a human observer or camera on for a portion of their trips. This information is used to extrapolate the bycatch on unobserved trips,” says Bush, “and because these observed trips are assigned randomly throughout the season and similar types of fishing efforts are grouped together, we have pretty good precision in the estimates of what is being caught.”

According to these measures, Bering Sea trawl fisheries retain approximately 96 to 98 percent of their catch, with bycatch accounting for about 2 to 3.5 percent. Bering Sea fixed-gear fisheries using pot and longline gear keep about 85 to 90 percent of their catch and discard 10 to 15 percent.

“However, the total pounds of catch in the trawl fisheries is several times greater than the fixed-gear fisheries, so overall bycatch amounts are larger for trawl than the fixed-gear fisheries, which have higher discard rates,” says Bush.

In the Gulf of Alaska, trawl fisheries discard anywhere from 5 to 13 percent of their catch, and fixed-gear fisheries dispose of 20 to 33 percent of the catch.

“The amount of bycatch depends on how much of the target species is being caught, what the bycatch rates are, and how discriminate the gear is,” says Bush. “Pot gear is good at catching the target groundfish species but can catch more crab than other gear types. Longline gear has low bycatch rates for crab but can have higher rates for non-target groundfish species. With trawl gear, the amount of bycatch depends on where they’re fishing, what the target fishery is, and the type of trawl gear that’s used.”

Some fisheries do have strict bycatch limits. “For trawlers, there’s a hard cap on king salmon, for example, and the fleet is very cognizant of that fact,” says John Jensen, a halibut and crab fisherman from Petersburg who chairs the Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce (ABRT). “They pay close attention to what is going on as far as catches go.”

Jensen adds that the whole fleet is interconnected by data collection agency records that note the amount of fish kept and the amount returned to the sea. This information can also be used to avoid “rolling hot spots,” where boats may be catching a higher percentage of a species, such as king salmon, and will need to move from there to a different area to avoid increased bycatch.

snow_crab

Snow crab harvested in the Bering Sea being sorted for processing.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

“Unfortunately, sometimes that means that they’re intercepting another kind of prohibited species when they do that,” says Jensen.

“We’re not trying to shut down a fishery, we’re trying to get everyone to help conserve… If our people catch one chum on the Yukon or Kuskokwim, we are criminals, but the commercial fleet can catch hundreds of thousands out there, and it’s just an accident.”

—Brian Ridley, Chief/Chairman, Tanana Chiefs Conference

The Issue in Western Alaska

One of the areas most affected by decreased salmon returns is Western Alaska, where smaller runs are having devastating impacts on the residents of the Kuskokwim River and Yukon River basins. According to Brian Ridley, chief and chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, finding out what is affecting the fish runs is vital, and this includes a focus on bycatch.

“We’ve not been able to fish on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers for three years, and runs have been really bad for the better part of eight years,” Ridley explains. “We use fish escapement into Canada as our gauge, and this year 22,000 chum and 12,000 king made it into Canada; that’s only 34,000 total fish. Since we began tracking it in 1982, it is the lowest it’s ever been. Even when we went through a low period in 2012/2013, there were still twice as many fish making it across the border.”

According Tanana Chiefs Conference Executive Director of Tribal Government and Client Services Amber Vaska, bycatch is just one of the many factors affecting fish returns. “Part of it is climate change, which includes long, hot summers that are warming up the water, which affects fish migration up the rivers,” she explains. “There are also the issues of ichthyophonus illness and predation.”

The main factor under human control is the size of the harvest. Vaska says, “Our tribe has been trying to conserve Yukon River salmon for the past three years—in fact, even longer—but none of this is affecting the big commercial fisheries.”

To this end, Ridley recently introduced two resolutions at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) convention that requested that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game support measures to decrease the intercept of Chinook and chum salmon at sea in Area M along the Alaska Peninsula, which Native communities use for commercial and subsistence fishing, and that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council address salmon bycatch and mortality issues in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands that affect coastal western and interior Alaska salmon stocks. Both resolutions passed.

“If we can get help in those two areas, we can hopefully get more fish back to the river,” says Ridley. “I worry that for too long, everyone has been pointing at everything else, and nothing has changed. That’s what has gotten us to where we are today.”

At the AFN convention, Ridley acknowledged that just having the discussion was controversial, seemingly setting regions and user groups against each other.

“We’re not trying to shut down a fishery, we’re trying to get everyone to help conserve,” he says. “If our people catch one chum on the Yukon or Kuskokwim, we are criminals, but the commercial fleet can catch hundreds of thousands out there, and it’s just an accident. And something has to change if we want our fish to come back.”

In the Bering Sea’s monitoring program, genetic samples from one of every ten Chinook salmon caught as bycatch indicate where the fish came from. “About half of the Chinook salmon taken as bycatch come from Western Alaska river systems, and the rest come from the other areas in Alaska, Canada, Washington, and Oregon,” says Bush. “Knowing the origin of the bycatch can help us estimate the impact that it may be having on the number of fish returning to those systems.

“The Chinook salmon caught as bycatch in 2020 is estimated to be about 3 percent of the total Chinook salmon returning to Western Alaska and the Yukon River,” she adds. “While that’s not a lot of salmon—and 10,000 or so salmon would not have changed management decisions in the area—without that bycatch, there would have been more salmon returning for future runs. It’s not an insignificant number when stocks are at critically low levels.”

While not everyone agrees how much bycatch is to blame, those in the fishing industry are also concerned about these issues that affect their livelihood.

“Many of Alaska’s salmon, halibut, and crab stocks are at historically low abundance levels, severely impacting Alaska’s coastal communities, subsistence users, fishing vessel owners and their crews, seafood processors and their employees, and other cultural and economic stakeholders. Understandably, this has led to recent conflicts between fisheries, gear-types, and regions,” said Jon Hickman, vice president, in a statement provided by Peter Pan Seafood Company.

“Although it is easy to blame bycatch in one fishery for low abundance in another, recent science suggests that there are more and larger problems: the retreat of seasonal sea ice coverage, warming waters, low food abundance, and increased predation are just a few,” Hickman added. “We need to better understand the causes of large mortality events like the recent opilio (snow) crab collapse as well as the more drawn-out decline in Arctic Yukon Kuskokwim salmon returns and statewide declines in chum and Chinook salmon.”

The Peter Pan Seafood statement goes on to say that fisheries management must evolve in response to a changing environment. “The current challenge to maintain sustainable fisheries, communities, and cultures is growing, and we support the state, federal, and industry-funded initiatives to adapt and increase our understanding of the ocean and how we can continue to manage these important marine resources,” said Hickman.

“While there is a perception that bycatch is taking chum and king salmon away from the people of the Yukon River and other Western Alaska systems, the task force proved that there are other issues—outside of bycatch or incidental catch—that are taking those fish away.”

—John Jensen, Chairman, Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce

The Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce

In November 2021, Governor Mike Dunleavy established the Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce to explore the issue and provide recommendations to policy makers. What the task force found, according to Jensen, is that bycatch is only part of the equation.

sockeye_in_net

A sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

“We need to make it clear to the public that it’s more than just bycatch,” he says. “There are many factors facing Alaska’s fisheries, including climate change, ocean conditions, and marine mammal predation. For example, water temperature plays a big factor; while the Bering Sea is cooling down now, it was abnormally warm there for a few years.”
Red king and Tanner crab

The Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce proposes rationalization in the Gulf of Alaska, similar to Bering Sea fisheries divided into quotas or shares.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

Jensen adds, “While there is a perception that bycatch is taking chum and king salmon away from the people of the Yukon River and other western Alaska systems, the task force proved that there are other issues—outside of bycatch or incidental catch—that are taking those fish away.”

After spending a year witnessing more than forty presentations from agencies, research organizations, and industry groups, the ABRT came up with recommendations for more research, both generally and related to salmon, crab, and halibut specifically.

“While there is quite a bit of research going on all of the time, more research—as well as the funding to support it—is still needed,” says Jensen. “We need to figure out strategies on how to fish where other fish are not present as well as research gear modifications, like excluders, that can let salmon out when trawling for pollock.”

Bering Sea Pacific cod pot

The Alaska Bycatch Review Taskforce proposes rationalization in the Gulf of Alaska, similar to Bering Sea fisheries divided into quotas or shares.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

Western GOA pollock trawl

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

The taskforce also proposed more rules, including a rationalization program for the Gulf of Alaska, fractioning the fishery into shares or quotas. “It would be different than the one in the Bering Sea because different communities would be affected,” says Jensen, adding that Alaska could see such a rationalization program taking place in the next four years. “Rationalization is a heavy lift, but folks want it now, so I think we’ll probably be looking at it early on.”

One thing that is certain is that no one group of people—whether state and federal officials, commercial fishermen and processors, or Native organizations and tribes—can fix this problem on their own. It will take everyone working together to try to ensure that in the future, Alaska’s seafood industry will be healthy enough to support all its users.

“Although it is easy to blame bycatch in one fishery for low abundance in another, recent science suggests that there are more and larger problems: the retreat of seasonal sea ice coverage, warming waters, low food abundance, and increased predation are just a few.”

—Jon Hickman, Vice President, Peter Pan Seafood Company

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The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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