Imagine your community had fished a certain species for generations, sustaining families and providing an income for lots of people. Your rural community, isolated from most modern means of earning a living have done this for thousands of years. Then suddenly, the fish that you rely on starts disappearing.
It’s not disappearing because other people want it. It’s disappearing because people who don’t want it are accidentally catching it while fishing for other species.
This is what’s happening to the native communities in Alaska that fish Pacific halibut. For generations they’ve fished for halibut, but now it’s being scooped up by industrial trawlers and discarded quickly as by-catch. It’s not even getting eaten.
For every Pacific halibut caught by fishermen in the Bering Sea in 2014, seven were caught and tossed back by trawlers.
This doesn’t need to happen. There are ways of reducing by-catch. Trawlers are able to target their locations to avoid known populations of halibut. But they don’t. It’s easier to pass through with trawler nets out and simply throw back what they don’t want. The persistent waste and destruction that this causes has pushed many North Pacific fisheries to closure.
According to a blog authored on political website Thehill.com by the mayor of St Paul Island, Alaska, this is an ongoing issue that draws worrying historical parallels.
“This is reminiscent of the mass buffalo killings on the plains in the 19th century when millions of bison were killed and left to rot, depriving the Native Americans of their means of subsistence, and ultimately leading to the destruction of their societies. Fishing is the major economic activity in many of these Alaska coastal communities, with some Alaska Native communities facing economic ruin and cultural extinction if the halibut fishery closes. Individual Alaska Natives are fearful they will not have enough money to put food on their tables and heat their homes this coming winter.
“For 20 years, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has not meaningfully adjusted the allowed by-catch limits downward for the trawlers.
“Instead the NPFMC has repeatedly allowed reduction in the allocations for those hook and line fishermen actively seeking halibut. On June 1, the NPFMC meets to decide whether to finally limit the destruction and waste of this iconic fish. Because action has not occurred for so long, it will require a major reduction in by-catch, about 50 percent, to preserve the remaining “maintenance” halibut fishery at a minimum level and begin the long process of restoring the halibut stocks.
“The only question for many Alaska Natives is whether the NPFMC will have the courage to do the right thing, – allowing them to continue to fish for halibut and maintain their livelihoods and cultures.”