Kenai mayor among those tapped for bycatch task force
The mayor of Kenai, a Ninilchik charter boat captain and a Homer-based fisherman are among 11 governor-appointed members to a new task force on bycatch — a hot-button issue that’s snagged stakeholders in Alaska’s fisheries for years.
Bycatch is the catch of nontargeted species in fishing nets. The issue reached a fever pitch recently, as fishermen in Western Alaska and around the state asked fisheries managers to curb how much bycatch trawlers were allowed to take.
Late last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he was convening a group of Alaskans to study bycatch and recommend policy. Today, his office said it filled 11 seats on the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force. The other two seats will be non-voting members from the Alaska Legislature.
Brian Gabriel will hold the coastal mayor seat.
Gabriel is mayor of the city of Kenai and a long-time setnetter on the east side of Cook Inlet. He also has experience guiding and sportfishing on the Kenai River.
“This sort of intrigued me, to be honest with you, because when the executive order was put out that established the task force, it was pretty broad," he said. "And when you think of bycatch, just about every fishery has bycatch.”
Gabriel suspects the task force will focus on higher-value bycatch fisheries, like halibut and salmon. Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told KSTK in November that bycatch was on the governor’s radar amid crab fishery closures in the Bering Sea and collapsing salmon runs in Western Alaska.
Bycatch also made waves last month when the council that manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters voted to link groundfish trawling in the Bering Sea to halibut abundance. That was after Alaska fishermen said bycatch from the lucrative trawl fishery was limiting their own opportunities to fish.
Reaching any consensus on bycatch issues is a tall order. Gabriel says he’s looking forward to starting the conversation.
“And it’ll be interesting to see sort of the road map we go down to distill to where we get to," he said. "Because you could look at this like, ‘Where do you start? Do you start by area? Do you start by stock? Do you start by fishery or gear type?’”
Mike Flores, owner of sportfishing business Ninilchik Charters, is another appointee to the task force, as is Erik Velsko, a commercial fisherman based out of Homer who is serving in the seat reserved for crab fishermen.
The chair of the task force is John Jensen, a member of the state’s Board of Fisheries and North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
The task force will meet until November 2022.