Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, is home to much of the state’s trawl fleet. (Flickr photo/James Brooks)

The Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee has gone on record urging the federal government to cap the excessive bycatch of halibut, salmon, and other valuable species in the Bering Sea trawl fisheries, which primarily target pollock.

The group penned a letter as part of its increased work schedule, as the December deadline to make recommendations for state-managed fisheries also looms large.

Note: The next meeting of the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, October 27, via Zoom. The meeting will begin with a presentation on local brown bear and deer populations by area management biologist Steve Bethune. The Advisory Committee will review herring proposals at its meeting on November 4.

Bycatch is one of those terms that puts people to sleep who aren’t involved in the state’s commercial fishing industry.

But halibut can grab headlines in the state, especially as over 3 million pounds of mostly juvenile fish have been killed in trawl nets in the Bering Sea — and that’s just as of early September of this year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages harvests in the federal waters offshore of Alaska, is considering several options for reducing bycatch — the most favored of which is a so-called “hard cap” based on the abundance of halibut.

Advisory Committee member Eric Jordan offered a very broad motion to address the issue.

“I move that the Sitka Advisory Committee comment to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that we favor, reducing halibut bycatch as much as possible as soon as possible. Additionally, we feel bycatch of other species, such as salmon and shellfish need to be reduced as much as possible as soon as possible. That’s my basic motion,” said Jordan.

The problem is not limited to halibut, but to other species as well. Trawlers drag enormous nets along the ocean floor. It’s an effective form of fishing — but also completely indiscriminate. 

Member Karen Johnson suggested specifying “sablefish” by name — also known locally as black cod. Advisory Committee chair Heather Bauscher wanted to emphasize salmon in the group’s comment.

“In 2019 there was an observed trawler, so they were already on better behavior, because they were observed. In one pass of that net, they caught more king salmon as bycatch than the average troller caught in Southeast that season,” said Bauscher. “The scale of this bycatch waste is, is absurd, really”.

The committee ultimately incorporated Jordan’s motion into a letter urging NOAA Fisheries to select Alternative 4 of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and to craft a bycatch plan based on abundance, rather than the fishing schedules favored by the deep-sea trawlers. The letter, signed by Bauscher, reads “It should not be up to the small boat fleet to carry the burden of the trawl fleet’s inability to catch their target species without collateral damage.”

The Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee consists of 17 members, all of whom have a stake in the state’s commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries, as well as in sport and subsistence hunting. The committee will meet weekly between now and December 22 to review over 100 regulatory proposals set to go before the next meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries beginning in January in Ketchikan.