AK - Alaska’s Fisheries Are Collapsing. This Congresswoman Is Taking on the Industry She Says Is to Blame.
Mary Peltola won her election by campaigning on a platform to save the state’s prized fisheries. A powerful fishing lobby is standing in her way.
This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Adam Federman is a reporting fellow.
HOMER, Alaska — The late 1990s and early 2000s were boomtimes for halibut fishermen in Alaska. Over 80 million pounds of the flatfish were being harvested annually. Deckhands could earn $250,000 a season. The small boat harbor in the southcentral city of Homer, known as the “halibut capital of the world,” was bustling.
Erik Velsko, 39, was one of those fishermen. He started buying annual shares in 2001 when the halibut population was at near historic highs. But within a few years, the stock plummeted by more than half and the quotas for commercial fishermen were slashed accordingly. Velsko’s share has gone from 12,000 pounds annually to less than 4,000 pounds. His brother-in-law, who also fishes out of Homer, has had his quota cut from about 90,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds. Many fishermen have gotten out of the business altogether.
“That whole dock was all long liners, you know, 15 years ago,” Velsko told me last year, pointing to a row of idled boats in the harbor. “It’s two or three now. My brother-in-law and another one.”
Halibut wasn’t the only so-called directed fishery to experience such a catastrophic drop. The crab fleet — made famous in the reality show “Deadliest Catch” — has been mostly stuck in port for two years after the near total collapse of the snow crab population and the decades long decline of red king crab. This year both fisheries were closed, a major blow to many of Alaska’s coastal communities, who rely on related industries, including processing, to float their economies. At the same time, subsistence and sport salmon fishing on the state’s two largest rivers has been shut down because of dwindling salmon runs.
There is one fishing industry that has not suffered.
The fleet of nearly 250 trawl boats that catch groundfish (species such as pollock and yellowfin sole that congregate on or near the ocean floor), have recorded banner seasons — permitted to bring in between 3 and 4 billion pounds of fish annually for worldwide distribution. What makes this inequity especially jarring for the captains of halibut, crab and salmon boats is that the trawlers, some as long as a football field, which drag vast nets along the sea bottom, also scoop up millions of pounds of species they don’t actually want, and they throw most of it overboard no matter how valuable it might otherwise be.
It’s called bycatch. Roughly two-thirds of the total halibut caught in the Bering Sea since 2006 has been bycatch taken in trawler nets most of which is dumped. In 2021, when subsistence fishermen were prohibited from fishing for chinook and chum salmon on the Yukon River, pollock boats swept up more than half a million individual salmon from the Bering Sea. And while red king crab and snow crab fisheries have been shuttered this year, the trawl industry has still been permitted to discard up to 4.3 million individual snow crab and 32,000 red king crab though they don’t always reach their cap.
The reasons for the crash of the halibut, crab and salmon populations — a collective disaster that has sucked hundreds of millions of dollars from the Alaskan economy — have been hotly debated for years. The Bering Sea, which has long been one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems, accounts for nearly 40 percent of all seafood caught in the United States, generating billions in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs. But evidence is growing from government agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conservation groups and fisheries scientists that the trawl industry is causing greater damage to marine habitat than previously assumed and that the removal of vast quantities of pollock, an important source of food for other species such as fur seals and Steller sea lions, is causing disruptions to the larger ecosystem. At the same time, the groundfish fishery, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the annual catch in Alaska, has come to dominate the regulatory system that sets fishing quotas for all species, Velsko says. In some ways, conflicts of interest are built into federal fisheries management and have become entrenched. Industry representatives or commercial operators with ties to the trawl fleet frequently serve on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the regional NOAA body which regulates the industry, and vote on policy that affects their sector.