AJOC EDITORIAL: Legal, historic harvest is not bycatch

“Words have meaning, and names have power.”

The word of the day is bycatch, and those who would use it against Cook Inlet setnetters well understand the power of words.

The quote is attributable to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the 17th century Spanish author who wrote the classic novel “Don Quixote” about the man from La Mancha who travels the land engaging in misguided quests that always end badly yet never shake a groundless faith he has acted heroically.

Much like the reality Don Quixote stubbornly ignored while repeatedly falling victim to it, words retain their definition regardless of any attempts to pretend they mean the opposite. Few words are more poisonous in the world of fisheries management than “bycatch,” and there is now an effort underway to tag setnetters with a term that is properly associated with the taking of salmon, halibut and crab by trawlers operating off the coasts of Alaska.

It is simply wrong to call the legal, historic harvest of king salmon by Cook Inlet setnet fishermen by the same name as the prohibited species catch otherwise known as PSC taken by trawlers.

Bycatch like the trawl PSC is not to be caught or sold. This is obviously not the case for setnetters, who have caught and sold kings for a century from the beaches of Cook Inlet.

Attempting to conflate trawl bycatch with legitimate setnet harvest is erroneous, because by regulation a prohibited species catch limit conveys no right of use and by law bycatch is required to be minimized to the extent practicable.

Neither of those conditions can apply to the setnet harvest of kings or sockeyes, which are allocated in regulation and are limited mainly by abundance.

According to the federal analysis used to support a cut in the allowed bycatch of halibut by Gulf of Alaska trawlers approved in 2012, “Because PSC must be avoided, to the extent practicable, it cannot be regarded as an asset of fixed quantity, but instead as an upper-bound threshold, the farther below which the total PSC mortality level, the better, all else equal.” (emphasis mine)

The federal analysis makes a strong distinction between an “allocation,” which is the amount of fish that can be harvested by various direct user groups, and an “allowance” for indirect users such as trawlers to take those same fish while targeting other species.

“PSC allowances do not convey ‘property-rights’ to use of a given amount of the prohibited species,” according to the federal analysis, “but rather reflect society’s upper-limit on its willingness to incur uncompensated losses of prohibited species.”

It cannot be clearer. Regarding bycatch, trawlers chasing groundfish have no legal claim to an allocation of halibut, but the public through its regulatory authority in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council allows them a certain limit and will shut them down if the cap is reached even when a harvest of their target species is still available.

The amount and account for halibut bycatch is undoubtedly controversial, but make no mistake, under the law direct users outrank indirect users and by that fact alone there can be no confusing trawlers with Cook Inlet setnetters who are direct users under the most basic of fisheries management principles.

There is no right of trawlers to keep salmon or any other kind of bycatch, but some bycatch is legally required to be retained in order for a full accounting of the prohibited species catch. It is a perverse interpretation of the rules to suggest a trawler who is legally required to retain and account for bycatch is the same thing as a setnetter who is allowed to retain and sell king salmon.

Although recent programs now retain trawl bycatch for donation to food banks, those takes of salmon or halibut once required by regulation to be discarded still result in “uncompensated losses” to the public through foregone yield by direct users.

Again, this situation cannot be applied to Cook Inlet setnetters, who pay fish taxes to the state for their harvest and wages to their crew all the while supporting Peninsula communities and generating a value-added chain that ends at retail outlets and restaurants around the world serving Alaska salmon.

The harvest of king salmon, which generates value to the public in and of itself, also allows for the primary harvest of sockeye salmon that supports hundreds of fishing families who have called Alaska home for generations.

There is also talk that some king salmon harvest by setnetters goes unreported to minimize the overall take. However, setnet catch of king salmon is one of the indicators the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses to measure run strength, so underreporting the harvest would only make the run appear weaker and therefore result in more fishing restrictions to setnetters.

This is the reverse outcome of underreporting bycatch, which results in a fishery staying free of restrictions as long as it remains under the limit.

The closer parallel to the king salmon harvest by setnetters is “secondary” catch. Trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska catching rockfish are allowed to retain and sell an allocated amount of other species such as sablefish that are the primary target catch for other gear types, namely longliners.

These “secondary” allocations issued to trawl boats are based on historic catch in the same way setnetters are allocated a historic harvest of king salmon.

While we are discussing fisheries management terms, I find it unlikely that those who wish to call setnet harvest by the inflammatory term “bycatch” would welcome the word “wastage” being applied to the death of king salmon after being hooked and released.

There is no equating bycatch with legal harvest, but there is a correlation between the term “wastage,” used to describe the death of halibut hooked and released by commercial fishermen, and the death of king salmon hooked and released by sport fishermen.

“Discard mortality rate” is a more clinical, and equally accurate, term for caught-and-released kings that die before spawning, but my guess is the public might more readily comprehend the term “wastage.”

Words have meaning, and having an honest debate about Cook Inlet salmon fisheries means they can’t be redefined as a means to win the argument.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

11/14/2013 - 8:11am