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At ComFish kickoff, Alaska’s congressional delegation says more needs to be done about ‘crisis’ levels of species decline


Alaska’s congressional delegation says species collapse in Alaska’s fisheries is nearing crisis levels. Senator Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola discussed the monumental challenges faced by Alaska’s fishermen and coastal communities during their legislative update on the opening day, Thursday, of Kodiak’s annual commercial fishing trade show, ComFish.

Sen. Murkowsi and Rep. Peltola kicked off ComFish’s federal legislative update with a brief acknowledgement of the Willow project’s recent approval – calling the $8 billion oil development a win for the state of Alaska. Sen. Dan Sullivan was not at Thursday’s forum due to a scheduling issue. He’ll speak on Saturday, March 18 instead.

But much of their time was spent detailing the uncertainties caused by species collapse in the waters off Alaska’s coast. Murkowski said the declines in salmon, crab and halibut fisheries across the state are at crisis levels.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘crisis’ lightly, but I think crisis is the appropriate word here. I wish that we could tell you the exact causes, I wish there was one single thing to explain everything,” she said.

Population declines that were once “acts of God are becoming trends of nature,” Murkowski said, adding that current fisheries management doesn’t always reflect what’s happening in the water.

“Our management systems are not inherently nimble. And that’s a challenge for us,” said Murkowski.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has been pushing for more funding to study the effects of ocean variability caused by climate change.

Murkowski said that includes money for more bottom trawl surveys, and programs through the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Murkowski said nearly $3 million had been allocated for the research in the Bering Sea through the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. And money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will also help coastal communities facing reduced revenue streams from crashing fisheries.

Peltola took time to call out bycatch, which is the incidental catch of a non-target species, saying not enough is being done to understand and address the issue.

“I just really want to be clear that I personally feel like we can be doing better. Progress has been made, but we can’t settle for the status quo, we need to make changes at a much faster pace than we are today,” said Peltola.

In a followup forum later that day, members of the state’s Bycatch Review Task Force detailed some of what those changes might be.

The group published a series of recommendations late last year, including the development of a statewide bycatch policy – bycatch is currently regulated federally under several federal policies, including the Magnuson-Stevens Act – and updating the types of gear and how much bycatch is allowed for certain vessels.

But according to the task force, shifting distribution patterns of marine species as ocean temperatures change also presents a hurdle to developing effective solutions.

Murkowski said there needs to be a collaborative approach to address the whole problem.

“We need to be working together to find these solutions because the challenges really are too great for anybody to face alone,” said Murkowski.

That process will take time, although Peltola noted that probably wasn’t satisfying for anyone in the room.

“Even if we do everything right starting today, it still could take 30 years for our fisheries to fully recover, and we really need to be clear about the timeline that we’re looking at. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we can’t hold ourselves back from making every marginal improvement that we can,” she said.

Peltola and Murkowski spoke for about an hour including a question and answer session. Both also addressed the lawsuit against Southeast Alaska’s king salmon fishery brought by a Washington-based environmental group, saying it was an effort to bully the fleet, and they would stand united in fighting it.