The trawlers’ bycatch is often halibut, reducing the amount of halibut that can be caught by Alaska Natives living on Saint Paul Island.
THE Bering Sea is a tough, unforgiving environment. As Alaska Native peoples we have survived and flourished for thousands of years by sustainably harvesting this sea’s bounty, including the noble Pacific halibut. Our home, the island of Saint Paul in the Pribilof Islands, is located in the central Bering Sea in the heart of the nation’s richest commercial fisheries.
Our people have subsistence-fished for halibut long before the Russian expedition sailed to Alaska in 1741, and also long before the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. This heritage explains why the halibut fishery has irreplaceable social and cultural value. It is not just what we do, but who we are. The Unangan (Aleut) people have utilized halibut as subsistence food for millennia. Our community’s life depends on the ability to live off the Bering Sea; this is the main reason we live here, as no other industries can sustain our culture on the Pribilof Islands. And yet, today our families and communities face a grave threat to the fishery, a threat wholly man-made and the direct result of wasteful and environmentally disastrous policies.
Trawlers and factory ships prowl the Bering Sea, wastefully catching and killing over 6 million pounds of halibut each year. The trawlers’ large nets drag up tons of fish, indiscriminately killing halibut as bycatch while they target other lower value fish — think “industrial fish products.”
The killed halibut are discarded, dumped overboard or disposed of in port. These bycatch halibut are typically younger juvenile fish that are needed to grow and sustain the fishery throughout the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The fishery has seen such dramatic declines that the allowed catch of those of us actually harvesting our regulated halibut quota-shares has dropped by 64 percent since 2010.
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Russian fur traders brought the Unangan people from the Aleutian Chain to the Pribilof Islands in 1786 as slave labor to harvest the northern fur seals for their pelts. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 it took over the valuable commercial fur seal harvest in the Pribilof Islands and the governance of our people.
That trade was ended by the federal government when it halted the federally sponsored commercial seal harvests in 1983 and, we, the Unangan people, were finally freed from federal government control. We were encouraged by the federal government to become commercial fishermen, as this was one of the few resources that could readily support our families. We worked hard, invested in harbors, docks, and boats, and succeeded at developing commercial halibut fishing as a way to save our community. Now, our communities and economy are at risk due to the rapacious behavior of the trawlers and factory ships.
A closure of the halibut fishery was narrowly avoided last year. Such a shutdown would mean the end to thousands of years of Unangan harvesting halibut to support our families. Our people would instead be forced to stop halibut fishing and watch while trawlers drag their nets by our islands and continue to destroy the halibut fishery. Without immediate meaningful reductions in bycatch the allowable halibut harvest will soon result in a shutdown of the fishery.
On Monday, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Sitka, Alaska to decide whether to finally end two decades of inaction by the trawlers and factory ships to limit their halibut bycatch. Unless the council adopts a meaningful reduction — by reducing the regulatory limits on bycatch by half — the trawlers and factory ships will continue to plunder the Bering Sea, the halibut fishery will continue to decline and our community will suffer. It is long past time for the council to end the wasteful trawling practices that have devastated the halibut fishery and threaten our people. The council must do the right thing now.