Alaska’s Fisheries Are Collapsing. This Congresswoman Is Taking on the Industry She Says Is to Blame.

Trent Matthews grew up commercial salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska. Ten years ago, he took a job on a trawler operated by US Seafoods, the Alaska Endeavor, which is involved in the Bering Sea groundfish fishery. It was the best money he’d ever made — about $1,000 a day. But after five weeks he quit. Matthews said he was appalled by the waste, particularly halibut, but also crab and non-commercial fish species, and what he described as the leveling of marine ecosystems. (US Seafoods declined to comment.)

“Once I started seeing the destruction, it was hard to watch,” Matthews said.

Alaska’s fisheries, once lauded as the best managed and most abundant in the country, appear increasingly fragile. Climate change — the Arctic is warming at least two times faster than the rest of the planet — has led to sea ice loss and warming ocean temperatures, which is further stressing already vulnerable populations. Last year, NOAA surveys revealed that nearly 11 billion snow crab in the Bering Sea had disappeared over the last two years, a population collapse across all size and age classes, which the agency has attributed to a “marine heat wave.” Others, though, have questioned whether warming seas can fully explain the decline.

It’s not just commercial fisheries that have been impacted by warming waters and decades of industrial fishing. The decline of chinook and chum salmon, species that are integral to Native communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, led to the closure of subsistence fisheries in 2021 and 2022 and forced the state to fly in thousands of pounds of frozen fish to remote villages for the first time ever.

NOAA Fisheries, which is part of the Department of Commerce and is responsible for overseeing the nation’s fisheries, is still working to understand the recent salmon and crab declines. It says that preliminary genetic analysis shows that bycatch makes up a relatively small percentage of chinook and chum salmon bound for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and that “unprecedented warming” is thought to have led to poor growth and survival of the species. But when runs are as low as they are, even relatively small amounts of bycatch, depending on where they are occurring, can make a difference, according to Gordon Kruse, a fisheries biologist who served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s science and statistical committee for more than two decades.

“If [bycatch] is proportional and just evenly spread out, then it might be hard to make a case that this is impacting the populations of salmon,” Kruse said. “On the other hand, if salmon are aggregating by river system in the ocean and most of the catch is coming from a few rivers or streams, then the impact could be huge.”

NOAA also noted that environmental and “human activities” likely affected Bristol Bay red king crab which was heavily exploited in the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition, commercial crabbing associations and conservation groups allege that the agency is likely undercounting the volume of crab bycatch in the Bering Sea. NOAA only counts whole crab that end up in the trawl nets brought on board. Individual animals that are maimed and crushed or that slip through the nets that drag along the ocean floor where crab tend to cluster are not counted. This is known as “unobserved mortality.”

In a written statement, NOAA Fisheries said, “The level of unobserved mortality of crab species…is unknown,” but that the agency factors this variable into its population estimates.

According to Jon Warrenchuk, a senior scientist with the conservation group Oceana, 165,000 square miles of ocean floor, an area roughly the size of California, has been impacted, most of it in the Bering Sea. NOAA confirmed the figure and said, “The area of the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) off Alaska is more than 900,000 square miles. So approximately 18 percent of the ocean floor has been impacted by trawl nets or trawl gear.” Once compromised, it can take decades if not longer for these areas to recover. One recent NOAA study has shown that deep sea sponges, invertebrates attached to the seafloor that provide habitat for juvenile and adult fish, have been damaged by trawl fishing which, the agency noted, can permanently alter the deep-sea ecosystem.

In part because of its natural abundance, pollock also plays an important role in the larger ecosystem. Some studies have linked the growth of the commercial U.S. pollock fishery, beginning in the 1970s, to the decline of Steller sea lions, now an endangered species, and fur seals, which have declined by about 70 percent. Seabirds, including kittiwakes and murres that nest on the Pribilof Islands in Bering Sea and rely on pollock, have also decreased significantly during the same period.

“The footprint of industrial trawling is huge — it’s massive,” said Warrenchuk. “We would contend there is ecosystem overfishing occurring.”

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