Peltola, Murkowski warn that fixing fish crisis will be time-consuming and complex

    Fishing boats line the docks in Kodiak's St. Paul Harbor on Oct. 3. U.S. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

    Kodiak, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - In a forum at Kodiak’s ComFish Alaska gathering, they describe fishery problems as dire and multifaceted, and both want updates to research and management systems

    The disastrous collapses of Alaska salmon and crab fisheries, some happening at the same time, will require a long time and a variety of tools to address, the state’s senior U.S. senator and sole U.S. House member said in a panel discussion at an annual fishing industry conference in Kodiak.

    To Rep. Mary Peltola, who spoke by teleconference to the group gathered at ComFish Alaska, the solutions will have to include tighter controls on bycatch, a term for the accidental catch of untargeted species.

    Peltola, a Democrat, acknowledged that bycatch “is the elephant in the room” for the fishing industry, with several sectors resisting stricter rules as expensive and ineffective.

    “Some people say that there’s nothing that we can do, or climate change is to blame and that’s it. And I’m just not willing to write off salmon and write off the people that depend on salmon to survive,” she said. 

    She added that bycatch regulations must be improved, along with other changes. “We can’t hold ourselves back from making every marginal improvement that we can,” she said.

    But those improvements will take a long time to produce results for what she had earlier described as “system-wide collapses and spirals everywhere we look,” she cautioned. 

    “Even if we do everything right starting today, it still could take about 30 years for our fisheries to fully recover,” she said.

    Bycatch is a hotly debated subject in Alaska. Many inland fishers blame bycatch by industrial-scale trawlers working at sea for the failure of salmon to return to rivers, and some crab harvesters blame trawlers for causing some of the problems with crab stocks. But members of the trawling sector, which harvests pollock and other non-salmon species, say that blame is misplaced. And scientists have so far not drawn a conclusive link between the crises and bycatch.

    Like Peltola, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski used dire terms to describe the closures of Bering Sea snow and red king crab harvests and the collapses of various salmon runs.

    “I don’t like to use the word crisis lightly, but I think crisis is the appropriate word,” said the Republican senator, who was also speaking by teleconference from Washington, D.C.

    Like Peltola, Murkowski said multiple responses are needed.

    “I wish we could all tell you the exact causes. I wish that there was one single thing to explain everything that we’re talking about. But I think we know that it is a mix of all of the above,” she said. She cited illegal fishing in international waters, climate change and ocean acidification, as well as bycatch.

    Part of the problem is that management systems “are not inherently nimble,” she said.

    “What we’re seeing now, the changes that we’re seeing and that we’re not understanding, are happening at a rate that our systems are not designed to be responsive to,” she said.

    One response came in the omnibus end-of-year spending bill passed by Congress that included a Fishery Resource Disasters Improvement Act to speed up the process of declaring and responding to collapsed fish runs.

    Other efforts will have to be made over the longer term, Murkowski said. That includes responses to natural disasters that are intensifying with climate change.

    “When we see acts of God that are becoming trends of nature, it really is going to require us to reevaluate processes, to respond to them and address them. It’s probably going to have us looking at and evaluating the infrastructure needs of communities like St. Paul, like St. George, as fleets are going further north to fish in the Bering,” she said, citing two Pribilof Island villages in the Bering Sea.

    Both Murkowski and Peltola expressed pessimism about the likelihood of updates any time soon to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the overarching law that governs fishery management in federal waters.

    “I’m just not seeing that there’s good alignment right now across parties and across chambers on the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization,” Murkowski said. It has been two decades since the act was last updated, she noted.

    Peltola, who has said one of her top priorities is to have the act modernized and updated, said she will continue to push for that.

    But she characterized the partisan polarization in Congress as disappointing and an impediment to progress.

    “It really shocked me how deeply partisan it is here in D.C.,” she said.

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