The commercial fishing season is underway in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and along with it the bycatch waste no one wants to talk about let alone deal with.
If the fish caught in commercial gillnets are not salmon, they are treated as trash, and almost everyone in the 49th state seems fine with that.
In the personal-use fisheries of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, starry flounder might be considered a species of conservation concern with dipnetters limited to a harvest of 10 per year.
But there is no limit in the commercial fishery, and no count of how many are caught and killed each year because there is no monitoring of the harvest.
In the region’s sport fisheries, it should be noted, there is also no limit, but that is primarily because no anglers are known to target the species due to preferences for what are believed to be fish of higher quality – salmon, halibut, lingcod, various rockfish and spiny dogfish.
But state sport-fishing regulations do make it illegal to catch, kill and dump flounder or any other “sport-caught” fish. No such restrictions apply in the commercial fisheries where gillnetters dump flounder, spiny dogfish and more as unedible trash.
Some of those who’ve actually eaten the flounder – a common, Pacific flatfish – claim, however, that it is quite tasty.
In California, as in Alaska, the fish are harvested as bycatch, usually in trawl fisheries. But there they are sometimes sold in fish markets.
In Alaska, they are almost uniformly treated as garbage, although at least one commercial fishing business in the state claims efforts to minimize its starry flounder bycatch.
“Because we fish in shallow waters with short nets, we have an extraordinarily low by-catch of 0.015 percent,” the Iliamna Fish Co. says. “This fifteen-thousandths of a percentage by-catch (calculated from our total salmon catch) consists of only starry flounder (platichthys stellatus), an incredibly hardy bottom feeder….Per boat, a 0.015 percent by-catch is approximately 18 flounders per season, 90 percent of which we return, alive, to the ocean.”
The bycatch in Cook Inlet appears significantly larger with most of the fish returned to the water dead, but no one knows how big the catch because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not require commercial fishermen using set gillnets to report bycatch of non-salmon species.
Only a little more is known about the harvest of spiny dogfish, a smallish shark, commercial fishermen also at times catch in significant numbers.
“This species may once have been the most abundant living shark,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “(But) it is commercially fished worldwide and has been heavily depleted in many locations.”
Unfortunately for commercial fishermen in Alaska, the worldwide market for spiny dogfish does not extend to the 49th state.
“Shark bycatch in state-managed salmon gillnet and seine fisheries is an issue of concern and has been brought before the (state) Board of Fish,” NOAA noted a decade ago. “Bycatch data does not exist for those fisheries.”
Not that much concern
Nothing has changed since then, though the state has made efforts to create fisheries for spiny dogfish. Fish buyers, however, have shown no interest in buying and marketing the catch.
Thus the spiny dogfish caught in the Inlet are, like the flounder, wasted. This is not because commercial fishermen are inherently wasteful.
Commercial fishermen are not “bad” people, as some anglers and dipnetters believe, any more than they are “good” people, as commercial fishing advocates propagandize.
Commercial fishermen are “business” people, and in the Inlet, their business involves harvesting salmon. Anything else that happens to get caught in their nets is simply a headache.
Yes, there are some conservation-minded fishermen in their ranks. Notable among them has been setnetter Gary Hollier, who has for years lobbied for changes in commercial setnet gear that he believes make set gillnets fish cleaner.
For his efforts, Hollier has been largely ostracized because other setnetters believe the shallower nets he has proposed to allow Chinook salmon and bottom fish to pass safely beneath are bad for their businesses.
Granted, the debate has mainly focused on the bycatch of Chinook, the biggest of the species and the fish Alaskans usually call kings. And there the issue is as much or more about money as it is about conservation.
Tourists, according to a study by Daniel Lew of the NOAA and Douglas Larson of the University of California-Davis, are willing to spend almost $2,000 for the chance to catch a couple of Kenai River king salmon, and they often spend that money in an unsuccessful pursuit, making the value of the kings in the sport fishery even greater.
The money involved here has caused decades of political battling over the king salmon bycatch in the targeted fishery for sockeye salmon.
And the bycatch that is simply wasted?
There has been almost no discussion of it because it is viewed as of no value. In some federal fisheries of Alaska’s coast, NOAA has imposed requirements bycatch be processed and donated to charities, but the state enforces no such requirements in state waters.
“In 1996, NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council established the Prohibited Species Donation Program,” the agency says. “It takes a unique approach to the problem of discarded fish by making it possible for fishermen to donate some bycatch to hunger relief organizations. It simultaneously reduces waste, provides high-quality seafood protein to people in need, and avoids incentives to catch prohibited species.”
SeaShare – a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that handles those fish – says the program has helped it to distribute over 250 million seafood servings to hunger relief agencies.
“It was an important story about fishermen who valued every fish they pulled from the sea. Rather than throw dead fish overboard, those fish could be a significant source of nutrition – badly needed protein – to help fight hunger. Because SeaShare’s goal isn’t just to feed people, but to use seafood to feed people well.”
Despite the state’s long history of generally trying to stop waste in the harvest of wild resources, the idea of a SeaShare like operation for fish otherwise wasted in state waters has never come up even though waste accusations are a favorite weapon in the long-running and ongoing political battles over who gets to kill what in Alaska.
Subsistence, commercial, sport and personal-use harvesters all regularly accuse each other of waste.
Many Inlet commercial fishermen believe dipnetters, whose catches are limited by family size, too often catch more salmon than they can eat in over the winter, and thus end up throwing away large volumes of still frozen salmon the next summer.
Left unmentioned is the retail price of $6.99 per pound and up – about twice the price of chicken or more – but undeniably a healthier source of protein.
Still, the whole waste debate is something of a red herring. There is waste everywhere. Some subsistence and sport hunters waste meat. Some sport and personal-use fishermen waste fish, and the same for commercial fishermen.
Not to mention the waste of commercially caught salmon once they reach the homes of consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has calculated about 31 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.
It is clear we are a wasteful society.
The only real difference at the harvester level in Alaska is that the waste is illegal in all but the commercial fisheries. The state doesn’t even require commercial fishermen in the Inlet to track their discards of starry flounder, spiny dogfish or other bycatch.
Some Cook Inlet residents have complained to the state about this. The results, they say, have been threats from commercial fishermen.
None wanted to be named for this story though one was willing to provide a photo along with the notation that “usually is it a larger dump than this. This goes on all summer.
“The waste of these fish, as well as the sand shark (another name for spiny dogfish), is ridiculous. Sportsmen have limits on these fish yet commercial fishers just dump them on the beach. They don’t care about anything but catching their salmon. (And) they will attack anyone who gets in their way.”
Sadly, commercial fishermen are not alone in their lack of care. Officials responsible for managing state fisheries don’t seem to care either. Or, for that matter, the general public.