House candidates agree bycatch is a problem. They have different approaches to solving it

The four Alaska candidates for U.S. House stand on a debate stage
Candidates for U.S. House take questions at Debate for the State, produced by Alaska Public Media, KTOO and Alaska’s News Source on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Photo by Hailey Barnes)

Salmon was a hot topic in Wednesday night’s debate among candidates for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat. When asked what they would do to address declining salmon stocks, all candidates pointed to bycatch as a continued threat to salmon and crab across the state.

Republican and former Gov. Sarah Palin began her answer with a shout-out to Bristol Bay and her time in the region.

“Near and dear to my heart: The fish issues, having for years set netted on the Nushagak in Bristol Bay,” she said.

Palin said the state is doing a good job with management and that it follows the “maximum sustainable yield” mandate outlined in state law. But she said the federal government needs to step up.

“It’s the feds who lack the enforcement, the bycatch laws that too many people are getting away with — especially foreign trawlers,” she said. “They’re not allowing those salmon to get back to where they need to be to spawn. We need to bust these people who are doing these illegal activities. You take their vessels, you take their gear, you take their permits, and we start teaching them a lesson.”

Bycatch is the accidental harvest of species that fishermen are not targeting. Tribes, communities and small-boat fishermen in Western Alaska have been particularly vocal with concerns about whether and how bycatch has contributed to declines in their salmon returns.

Democrat and incumbent Rep. Mary Peltola, who previously directed the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said she wants to ensure there’s funding for research on both the state and federal levels. But she said managers can’t wait for those results.

“We’ve got to take precautionary management. We cannot allow metric tons of bycatch of juvenile salmon, crab and halibut to be thrown overboard every year. This has led to a very devastating collapse of not only salmon, but halibut. And now we’re seeing it in the crab industry as well,” she said.

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery will be closed for the first time in its history this winter, after the number of crabs dropped by nearly 90% since 2018. Bristol Bay red king crab populations have also declined drastically, and that fishery will be closed for the second season in a row.

Republican candidate Nick Begich agreed trawl bycatch should be addressed immediately. And he pointed to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main law regulating fishing in federal waters.

One of the late Congressman Don Young’s goals was to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In September, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a revision of the act, adding in restrictions on bycatch and naming climate change as a threat to federal fisheries for the first time. Begich wants to proceed with caution.

“I think that we need to be careful about how we go through our Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization and making sure that we’re putting precision language into the act that is actually going to demonstrably improve the sustainability of these fisheries,” he said. “We have a mandate under the state constitution for a maximum sustainable yield, and every fishery in the state needs to be managed with that objective.”

Begich also noted that while some runs in the state have declined, Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon returns are at a record-high. He said managers must understand why Bristol Bay is succeeding.

Biologists don’t know exactly why Bristol Bay’s runs have been so large in recent years but say it may be due to warming waters, both in the ocean and in freshwater spawning grounds. There is a strong correlation between warming temperatures and the increase in Bristol Bay sockeye runs. Other species have not fared as well: King and chum salmon in the Nushagak River were at some of their lowest numbers on record in recent years, and neither species has been meeting the minimum goal for sustainability.

Libertarian candidate Chris Bye said he saw just three king salmon on the Chena River while working as a fishing guide this summer. He also agreed: Bycatch is an issue.

“But just throwing it back doesn’t solve the problem. I honestly think we need to get industry more involved in reducing their catch. Otherwise, it’s not going to be there,” he said. “It’s only a renewable resource until it’s all gone.”

Bye also suggested divvying up seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by region rather than race. That council decides fishery policy in Alaska’s federal waters. Peltola advocated adding two Alaska Native seats to that council as part of the Magnuson-Stevens rewrite.

Alaska Public Media, KTOO and Alaska’s News Source produced the debates for Alaska governor and the U.S. House and Senate, which aired statewide on television and radio.

Early voting is underway in many communities across the state. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

KDLG - Dillingham

KDLG is our partner station in Dillingham. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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