Rep. Peltola’s struggle for salmon makes its debut on the resources committee
The new congresswoman from Alaska wants her new colleagues on the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to understand how serious the fish crisis is for families in her home region of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where people depend on salmon for food. On Wednesday, she told them about a fisherman from Kuskokwim who usually harvests 2,000 chum salmon a year.
“Because he has a team of dogs and a very large family. So typically every summer he harvested 2,000 chum salmon,” Rep. Mary Peltola said. “Two summers ago he was only able to harvest two chum salmon.”
The impact of his anecdote in the US House Natural Resources Committee room was difficult to measure. Republicans were out in force to skewer numerous provisions in a Democratic bill to rewrite the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main federal fisheries law. Some have spoken of the importance sportfishing belongs to their families and communities.
It was an unfinished goal of the late Congressman Don Young to renew the bill. Now Peltola, in his first committee session as a congressman, is trying to pass a version that will refocus fisheries management to meet the needs of subsistence fishers — especially in western Alaska, where salmon has become painfully scarce. One of her main campaign themes is that she will fight for the salmon but faces strong headwinds.
The bill includes a change that Peltola advocated in November, when she came to the committee as a hearing witness: the addition of two seats on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for tribal members of the ‘Alaska.
Without those seats at the table, she argues, the fisheries management board will always be more receptive to the large trawler fleet. They catch salmon by accident. Peltola said this bycatch is one of the reasons fish are not returning to rivers as usual.
“After 30 years of industrial fishing in the Bering Sea, where they dump metric tons of juvenile crab, halibut and salmon, this is catching up with us,” she said. “And then we get to the point where people who depend on hundreds of salmon to feed their families every year aren’t even able to catch single-digit numbers of salmon.”
She introduced an amendment adding that tribal appointees should have knowledge of subsistence traditions as well as sport and commercial fishing. The committee adopted it by voice vote.
Opponents of the reauthorization bill include trade associations representing factory trawlers that catch pollock in federal waters off Alaska — an area that stretches from three miles offshore to 200 miles. The proposal to add Alaska tribal seats to the North Pacific Council also has geographic naysayers.
“Of course I object to that,” Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore, said.
His state has a seat on the North Pacific Council and he doesn’t want Oregon’s voice diminished. He points out that Alaska already has six seats. Alaska Natives could be named there, he said.
Peltola was ready for this argument. Alaska Native fishing experts don’t often have the resumes that land political appointments, she said, adding that two of the most valued voices on fishing in Kuskokwim were a retired plumber and a retired electrician.
“But these two gentlemen had spent every summer of their lives on the river,” she said. “They came from a line that had a 12,000 year relationship with their fishing grounds. Uninterrupted. 12,000 summers.
Opponents of the bill also say it goes too far to clamp down on bycatch, to the point that no fishery could survive.
The bill’s lead author, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, said it simply emphasizes the need to minimize bycatch, something that’s already in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
“Minimize bycatch to the extent that current law says ‘feasible’. We would change it to “possible,” Huffman said. “But you’re still in the context of recognizing that bycatch will always exist.”
The At-Sea Processors Association, which represents major players in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, declined a request for an interview. This industry group and 40 others wrote a letter lambasting the bill. Signatories include the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, which have invested in trawlers.
If the bill passes, their letter warns, the fishing industry will be in chaos. The fishery will be closed, they say. Consumer prices will rise. Lawsuits will be filed if councils fail to take all ‘possible’ steps to stop bycatch.
The letter says managers and fishers are already going to great lengths to minimize bycatch.
Such opposition killed earlier efforts to push through a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.
House Resources chairman Raul Grijalva said he hoped to pass the bill “soon” through the committee and submit it to the full House for a vote.