Warming waters are driving Bering Sea crashes, but Alaska's fishing industry is quiet on climate

Billions of snow crab disappeared from the Bering Sea in the past few years — a crash that’s devastated Alaska’s crab fishing fleet and a harvest that just two years ago was worth $130 million.

Bycatch didn’t kill them. But the issue still dominated discussions this month at an Anchorage meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the commission that regulates the huge, lucrative harvests of seafood in the federal waters off Alaska’s shores.

The council and its advisory panel, over the course of 10 days, spent hours listening to fishing industry representatives, tribal leaders and others call for a crackdown on bycatch by Bering Sea trawlers — the big vessels that scoop up millions of whitefish, like pollock, while sometimes accidentally “bycatching” crab and salmon.

The federal scientists who track Bering Sea harvests say there’s no way the trawl fleet could have caused the epic crash in snow crab.

Instead, they say, climate change was a major driver: A marine heat wave, combined with what had been a booming crab population, likely drove the die-off, as the crabs’ metabolism rose with warmer water temperatures and they ran out of food. Warming ocean and river temperatures are also likely driving major declines in chum salmon, which have prompted parallel calls for stricter bycatch limits.

The North Pacific council lacks the power to regulate the carbon emissions that scientists blame for global warming. That’s why participants at this month’s meetings say they’re pushing for bycatch reductions, which they describe as an essential step to help crab and salmon populations adapt and recover.

“We need to focus on things that we do have control over, and that’s really fishing impacts and habitat protections,” Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers trade group, said at a public forum that coincided with the North Pacific council meeting. “Even though bycatch may not be what drove this stock down, we do think while it’s at such historically low levels, it could be impeding the recovery.”

But some climate activists, and a handful of climate-focused fishermen, argue that the industry needs to expand its focus to call for bolder policies to reduce carbon pollution and minimize the risk of further damage to fisheries.

“We’re all in this mess because of climate change, and it’s only going to get worse until we do something about climate change,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Behnken has publicly endorsed a carbon fee and dividend program, and her organization is currently soliciting comments on a national climate report. But many other big fishing industry groups and companies remain conspicuously silent on the issue.

“It’s been so political, and I think that’s why the big industry has stayed away from it,” Behnken said in a phone interview. “It’s surprising and disappointing, because I really do think the fishing industry has the ability to influence national and state policy.”

“We have very little control”

At this month’s North Pacific council meeting, federal scientists presented modeling that predicts urgent policies to reduce carbon emissions would leave the Bering Sea “slightly warmer but relatively similar to contemporary conditions.” Delaying action, by contrast, will drive temperatures “well beyond those observed to date.”

Scientists expect species to react differently if the Bering Sea continues warming — with some populations unaffected or even benefiting, according to Bob Foy, the science and research director at the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

But broadly speaking, Foy said, larger rises in temperature will cause more dramatic changes to the ecosystem — and force bigger adaptations from fishermen.

“That rate of change is something that animals and communities have a hard time adapting to,” Foy said in a phone interview. “We adapt to slow change rather well. Fast change? Really poorly.”

The North Pacific council is largely made up of appointees of the governors of Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and members are charged with managing fisheries and setting harvest quotas.

It spent much of its time this month hearing public testimony from fishing industry groups, tribes and conservation organizations — whose representatives fiercely debated whether stricter bycatch limits would help restore stocks of crab and chum salmon.

Climate change only came up in passing, and climate policy was barely discussed at all. At the public forum, industry leaders seemed to play down their roles in addressing the problem.

“Global warming is going to happen in the form global warming is going to happen. We have very little control,” Robin Samuelsen, an Alaska Native fishing industry leader, said at the forum, which was hosted by the Anchorage Daily News and the Seattle Times.

Samuelsen, who chairs the board of a major nonprofit fishing group, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., added: “Controlling the bycatch, controlling the interception, we have a lot to do.”

A “unified interest”

Representatives from the trawling industry, whose profits could suffer under stricter bycatch caps, have bristled at what they see as a misguided attempt to blame their vessels for climate-driven declines in salmon and crab.

“The real argument here is, ‘We’re hurting, so you’ve got to hurt, too,’” said Brent Paine, executive director of a Bering Sea trawlers group called United Catcher Boats. Bycatch reductions, he said, are “not going to achieve the objective that the original proposers want — it’s incremental.”

But Paine’s members have also been largely absent from public debate over climate change policy.

Part of that may stem from their political leanings: Many trawl industry players, Paine said, tend to lean conservative, and have been aligned with elected officials who deny the scientific consensus on climate change.

And unlike for harvesters of chum salmon and crab, warming waters haven’t yet directly caused big problems for trawlers: The groundfish that they catch appear, so far, to be booming in spite of warming Bering Sea temperatures.

Still, Paine said he hopes the crashes in other species serve as a “wake-up call” about the threat that climate change poses to Bering Sea fisheries.

Another major trawl industry trade group, the At-Sea Processors Association, has also largely stayed out of climate policy discussions. But its executive director, Stephanie Madsen, said in an interview this month that she would give the issue further consideration — as a possible area of common ground with some of the industry, tribal and conservation groups that have called for stricter bycatch limits on her members’ boats.

And while Goen, from the crabbers group, downplayed climate policy at the forum, she said in a subsequent phone interview that she expects her organization to more seriously consider its role in that debate, though members are currently focused on getting through the current crisis and paying their monthly bills.

“Fisheries are a sustainable food source — a really healthy protein,” Goen said. “But how do we make sure that they continue to be secure, moving forward, as climates and oceans are changing?”

Seafood executives and corporations are major political donors to Alaska’s elected officials, who covet the endorsement of groups like United Fishermen of Alaska. The industry also employs lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and the state Capitol in Juneau.

If Alaska’s fishing industry could coalesce around specific climate policies, and join with other affected businesses like those in marine tourism, the state’s congressional delegation “would have to stand up and listen,” said Rick Steiner, a longtime Anchorage climate activist and a former professor of marine conservation.

“It would be a potent political constituency, without question — and not just in Alaska, but nationally and even globally — if the Alaska commercial fishery came together and exerted collective leverage on this issue of climate,” he said in a phone interview.

Doing so, however, would require cooperation among segments of the industry that are often fighting with each other, Steiner added — like the groups on either side of the bycatch debate.

“Every component of the fishing industry has problems with every other component — it’s just human nature,” Steiner said. “But in this issue, there is a unified interest.”

This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from journalist Nathaniel Herz.

The AlaskaBeacon.com is a donor-funded independent news organization in Alaska.


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