Alaska can’t handle the water load when bycatch

Former Governor Bill Walker, campaigning in Cordova for another state as governor, and fellow runaway Heidi Dregas at a meet-and-greet at Reluctant Fishermen on Sunday, June 5.

Written by Bill Walker and Heidi Drigas
Cordova Times newspaper

Alaska is a fishing state. This includes traditional subsistence fishers, sport and personal use fishermen, and commercial fishing families who drive coastal economies. The ocean is woven and rewarded in the DNA of the Alaskans – we depend on it as the foundation of society and culture. Fish management and resource abundance are key factors to our economic, social and environmental health.

In recent years, the North Pacific has seen a dramatic decline in some of our state’s most culturally and economically valuable species, including salmon, halibut, and lobster. The effects on the communities and hunters were severe and immeasurable – loss of income and loss of culture. Managers and scientists have cited climate change and bycatch as potential drivers of these declines, but some in the fishing industry have not been willing or willing to tackle bycatch independently in a serious or honest way. The result is conversations without constructive outcomes. Good intentions followed by less than effective follow up.

Instead of trampling the waters on bycatch while the status quo undermines our fisheries, we must work together to build a better future for our nation’s fisheries, and this work must address the fundamental challenges of climate change, access to fisheries, and bycatch. As Governor and Deputy Governor, we will take decisive action to address the reality of unsustainable bycatch and the injustice inherent in managing the status quo. Some will say that Alaska by-catch issues are primarily a federal issue. And while it is technically true that many of the current bycatch challenges stem from federally managed trawl fisheries, the state of Alaska can and should play a proactive role in aggressively finding immediate solutions.

On the first day, our management will assign and hire well-versed officials committed to aggressive bycatch solutions for leadership roles in the Department of Fish and Game (ADFG). In addition, we are committed to an open and transparent process for appointing informed and focused bycatch Alaskans to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC), where many bycatch allocation decisions are made.

Alaskan Natives deserve an increased voice in our resource management processes, and we are committed to listening to the indigenous rulers of our lands and waters about how to best amplify their voices at the management table—particularly at the NPFMC. We recognize the value of the Alaska Bycatch team and are committed to moving this work forward, but our management will also ensure that stakeholder seats properly represent the diverse voices across the state. For example, at the Fisheries Board, Indigenous people and community Alaskan fishermen deserve a stronger voice—and we are committed to ensuring that our Board of Directors appointments reflect this.

In the long term, we will promote and pursue solutions that encourage full utilization and reduce bycatch, particularly for economically and culturally important species in Alaska. We will invite federal and state stakeholders and managers and partner with Congress to identify and implement policies that reduce by-catch and get the full value of our most valuable renewable resource for Alaska – our fish.

There are ways to reduce bycatch in all fisheries, and we have successfully reduced bycatch levels in the past through hard-caps, improved harvesting methods, and robust communication within the merchant fleet. We need to take action to motivate good behavior and punish bad behavior with regard to bycatch. We have encouraged ongoing research to reduce by-catch and the development of new technologies to avoid by-catch, and we are committed to investing state dollars in these areas.

Above all, the Walker-Drygas administration will invest in research to understand the effects of climate change and bycatch on our fisheries and fishing communities, and we will develop strategies to reduce those impacts. Alaskans deserve sustainable access to Alaskan fish, and as Alaskans, we also have a responsibility to nurture our fish for future generations. We are committed to working with the ADFG and the legislature to ensure better state funding for fisheries research while also working with the Alaskan Congressional delegation and the White House to address critical data and science gaps in our understanding of ocean ecosystems.

Alaska needs bold and decisive action to reduce bycatch. Fisheries will be a top priority for our management, and we will turn up the heat on bycatch. We will invest immediately and heavily in restoring Alaska’s access to healthy fisheries.

Bill Walker has served as the 11th Governor of Alaska and is running for the position again this fall alongside nominee for Governor Heidi Drigas, who was the Commissioner for Labor and Workforce Development. Bill and Heidi are freelancers who have lived in Alaska for life.

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