NOAA Fisheries is asking the public to weigh in on whether it should broaden its approach to fisheries management and, for example, look at bycatch at the “ecosystem level,” rather than as a metric for an individual fishery. If NOAA determines that an update to its “National Standards” is needed, it would likely publish proposed rules in 2024. (In the photo: Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, is home to much of the state’s trawl fleet. Flickr photo/James Brooks)

The federal government is looking for input from the public on proposed changes to how fisheries are managed in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The new rules could dramatically affect the amount of allowable salmon bycatch landed by the trawl fleet, for example, and also require managers to consider climate change, social equity, and environmental justice when setting harvest rates beyond state waters.

Linda Behnken is a Sitka-based fisheries advocate who’s helped spearhead the effort to update the “National Standards” used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to guide management decisions. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey met with Behnken to learn more about the issue, and the upcoming public comment deadline.

KCAW: Where is this coming from? Because it seems like for Alaskans and people involved in Alaska’s fisheries, people concerned about the welfare of Alaska’s fishing communities and our Indigenous communities that depend on subsistence resources, this whole idea of beginning to factor in climate change and social equity and environmental justice – and most of all bycatch – into revised rulemaking for the Federal fisheries just seems like it could not be more timely.

Behnken: Yeah, it’s hugely timely. You know where it came from is growing frustration over the last three-to-five years with the fishery management decisions and how they were affecting our communities and affecting our fish stocks. And we started asking NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to consider these revisions to the guidelines two years ago, really pushing on this administration to recognize the inequities and also that we were undermining – rather than building – resilience into the system through how we’re managing fisheries. And that we didn’t see a way for the Magnuson Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which is the organic act for federal fisheries, to be amended or reauthorized anytime soon, where those kinds of changes could also have been made. But the guidelines are the interpretations of the standards, and sort of the directions to the decision makers, and those can be revised and updated by NOAA unilaterally without waiting for Congress to act. So we saw it as an opportunity to make these changes. And we started asking them to open this process, and we’re thrilled that they’ve opened that door.

KCAW: Who is “we”? Is Alaska spearheading this effort? Because whatever happens here happens across the entire nation.

Behnken: Yes, there is now support from other parts of the country, but Alaska definitely spearheaded. 

KCAW: So there are a total of 10 “national standards” under the Magnuson Stevens Act, but you’re focused on only three standards, four, eight, and nine. And right now, it’s not about how to change them, but if?

Behnken: Yeah, revisions to the guidelines. And the question is, should they revise the guidelines to national standards four, eight, and nine? And if they should, how should they do it?

KCAW: You’ve been pushing NOAA,  and when I say “you,” I guess I’m referring to a coalition of organizations who are involved in advocacy?

Behnken: Yes, the Alaska Fishing Community Coalition, which is a group of communities, fishing organizations, tribes, and environmental groups which to some degree have recognized the problems we’re up against here and called for further revisions.

KCAW: And so right now NOAA wants to know from us, from the public, “Hey, is this a good idea? Should we be revisiting these three national standards concerned with climate, equity and environmental justice, and bycatch?”

Behnken: Yeah, sort of allocation and how that is affected by climate, equity – or how that also affects equity and opportunities. And the national standard eight addresses providing for the sustained participation by fishery-dependent communities, and national standard nine is minimizing bycatch to the extent practicable.

KCAW: Let’s talk about the word “practicable” for a moment because it appears a couple of times in these standards. I guess Magnuson-Stevens, when it was written, like any major law, involved a lot of compromise, a lot of massaging the  language, and the whole idea around bycatch was to allow the commercial fisheries to reduce bycatch “as much as practicable.” “Practicable” is a little too vague to be realistic anymore, right?

Behnken: Yeah, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, doesn’t it? So national standards eight and nine were added in the 1990s. And some of it was because our senator at the time raised these issues of bycatch and how much fish was being taken as bycatch. And recognizing that it’s hard to go fishing and to catch only your target – that probably every fishery has some level of bycatch. But there are bycatch levels that are unacceptable, and start to have huge impacts on directed fisheries and fishing communities, as well as on other commercial fisheries, sport, or subsistence. We really went through this as well in defining what was “practicable” for halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea when we saw the community of St. Paul one year looking at not even having a directed fishery right off their coast, while bycatch was taken in trawl fisheries that they could see from their shore.

Note: Linda Behnken is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. The public comment period on whether new rules are needed in the federal fisheries closes on Tuesday, September 12. You can file a public comment here.