Can Science-Based Policy Address Bering Sea Seafood Challenges?

Alexus Kwachka

This piece comes to us from fisherman Alexus Kwachka of Kodiak, Alaska (photo above, bio below) and is the latest installment in the Network’s National Seafood Month series.

The natural world is the ultimate source of our food, our drinking water, the very air we breathe, and everything we create for our consumption. In short, all of our wealth ultimately comes from the Earth – there is only one Earth, and there is no place else it possibly could come from. We know that aggregate human behavior in industrialized society has heretofore been unsustainable. One unforgiving rule of nature is that unstable systems ultimately collapse. The flip side of this is that collapses are inherently caused by system instability.

So when there’s an imminent collapse happening around us, the intelligent thing to do is look for the cause, and address it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, change is difficult, and politics often gets in the way.

Top of mind for us in Alaska are the widely reported closures of Bering Sea crab fisheries, which could cost the state of Alaska upwards of $100 million. This is an incredibly complicated situation, but it can be distilled to three driving forces: climate change, problems with surveys, and bycatch impacts from other fisheries. Greenhouse gas emissions-driven warming in the Bering Sea is causing ocean conditions to become less favorable to harvested crab species. Abundance estimates are now known, for several reasons, to be mischaracterizing the abundance of crabs. And extraordinarily high trawl bycatch leaves fewer and fewer crabs for directed fisheries than ever.

As we enter the mature phases of a new federal administration, the United States’ political system is more deeply divided on partisan lines than we have seen in generations. But there are many real environmental and management issues that the commercial fishing industry is facing that require – that in fact demand – action, in the form of a more science-focused, community-supportive approach to governance.

In reality, most of the major issues confronting America’s fishing industry today – particularly onrushing environmental and ocean acidification issues – are nonpartisan, nor do they belong to any particular region of the country. Labeling any of these issues as the specific domain of either political party is foolishness of the highest sort, and letting petty political disputes jeopardize our nation’s commercial fishing industry’s future is a dangerous folly. It affects everyone, everywhere.

The need for a healthy and abundant food supply, clean and safe rivers, and unpolluted clean air are not now, and never should have become, politically partisan issues. Nor in today’s highly interconnected world are they even strictly national issues.

These are instead issues that affect all of humanity, including its future ocean food supply and the habitability of the Earth for all future generations.

Commercial fisheries are a major case in point showing the close connection between healthy ecosystems and healthy economies. Worldwide, commercial fisheries are a trillion dollar industry – accounting for about 8 percent of the entire world’s economy – and supply the primary source of protein to several billion people. In the U.S. our commercial fisheries provide around 10 billion pounds of seafood, feeding tens of millions of our people some of the healthiest and most natural food available and providing tens of thousands of jobs.

As we celebrate National Seafood Month, we must remember that every seafood species we harvest and market comes from the ocean or an estuary, where it requires certain special water, temperature and biochemical conditions to reproduce and thrive, which is its native habitat. Take away that habitat, or seriously disrupt the environmental conditions of that habitat, and we lose that fishery, possibly forever. But you also destroy all those fishery jobs, and you dismantle the many vital communities those jobs once supported.

Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern time and time again, through unsustainable, short-sighted and greed-guided land-use, through nearshore and estuary development practices, through the misallocation, physical blocking and wholesale dewatering of rivers, and through pollution of estuaries and nearshore spawning and rearing grounds. Loss of habitat is frequently a far more important factor in the collapse of many commercial fisheries than is unsustainable harvest, and is also much more difficult to reverse.

But we know well that bycatch impacts to harvested species directly, and indirect impacts caused by habitat destruction, have brought unprecedented harm to Alaska’s coastal communities. Whether it’s Chinook salmon or Bering Sea crab fisheries, it’s clear that the balance of power in fisheries policy has shifted further and further away from communities and small-scale operators. It’s going to take a combination of science-based policy and common-sense politics to keep bycatch impacts from destroying Alaska’s community-based fisheries and Americans’ access to all its seafood.

Congress is currently considering an update and reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). This is a tremendous opportunity to incorporate climate science into our management decisions, conserve critically important fish habitat areas, and protect fishing communities and working waterfronts. We have seen in the past what happens when political pressures override fisheries science and allow powerful interests to monopolize resources. We cannot let this happen in Alaska as well.

About Alexus Kwachka

Alexus Kwachka has been fishing commercially out of Kodiak, Alaska for the last 35 years. He’s worked from the deck to the wheelhouse and now owns and operates his own 32-foot Bristol Bay gillnetter. When he isn’t fishing for salmon, halibut, cod, rockfish, herring and crab, he advocates for coastal communities and small boat fishermen and crew to keep the fishing way of life alive and prosperous.

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