Locals appointed to state bycatch task force

The mission of the task force will be to better understand the unintended bycatch of fish caught in both state and federal waters.

Three Kenai Peninsula residents were among those appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to serve on the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force, according to a Friday press release from the governor’s office.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, as well as Ninilchik Charters Owner Mike Flores and Homer-based commercial fisherman Erik Velsko will take seats on the task force. There are 11 members in total.

According to the release, the mission of the task force will be to “better understand the unintended bycatch of fish such as halibut and salmon caught in both state and federal waters.”

Bycatch refers to the unwanted fish and marine life caught while targeting other species or grades of fish. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, bycatch can be fish people didn’t intend to catch, can’t sell, or are not permitted to harvest.

Gabriel, who has experience in the commercial fishing industry, said he appreciated being appointed by the governor.

“One of the reasons I applied is that it is an intriguing process, being a fisherman,” he said.

He said the economics of state fishing have always been interesting to him, and various policies that affect fishing seasons are all pretty high stakes.

“These fishermen are individual businesses,” Gabriel said. “They hire people, they have capital investments, they want to make money at the end of the season.”

He said maintaining fishing as a viable and lucrative business for the state, while also conserving the stock of fish is a balance.

“On the other hand, we have to make sure that we sustain these stocks … and the effects of these fisheries aren’t having the long-term negative effect,” Gabriel said.

When it comes to fishing policy, the mayor said he “prefer(s)” to make recommendations based on available data.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get as much data as we need to, to make decisions for good recommendations,” Gabriel said.

Flores, who has owned Ninilchik Fishing Charters since the early 1990s, said he’s looking forward to delving into the issues derived from bycatch.

“I’m really hopeful that our committee can do something for Alaskans to kind of make a change,” he said. “It’s going to be a fact-finding mission for all of us to learn a little more about bycatch, and see what we can do to help the state.”

Although Flores has fished for multiple species, he said he has the most experience targeting halibut. He said that halibut stocks, as well as salmon and king crab, have been on the decline for years, and that he’s interested in looking at why.

“Some of it’s related to bycatch, without a doubt,” Flores said. “But there are other things out there that are affecting (stock) as well.”

He cited climate change as one contributor to fish stock decline.

“This committee will be about crunching data (and) getting as much information as possible to make sound decisions,” Flores said. “Not just, you know, shooting from the hip.”

Since the fishing industry is one of the largest contributors to the state’s economy, Flores said being on the task force will be about finding middle ground.

“The whole bycatch (task force) is just a working process to figure out, I guess what we can live with and what effect that has on the fisheries,” Flores said.

Velsko, another appointee of the task force, lives in Homer but has fished commercially throughout the state for more than two decades.

He said his experience will be an asset to the force.

“I think I can add some good input to the conversation, just from past experience in the fisheries, and then some of the management side too,” Velsko said.

Working with other folks from the industry will also bring diverse perspectives to the task force and ensure collaboration, he said.

“There’s a good group of people there that have been around a long time that have a good understanding of how everything fits together,” Velsko said.

He also recognized the decline in halibut and king salmon stocks in different parts of the state and said it will be interesting to learn more about the runs.

“It’s going to be a lot to discuss,” Velsko said. “It’s going to be interesting to see which way they want to steer us or what rises to the top as the most important issue to focus on.”

Dunleavy has tasked the group to start looking into the impacts bycatch has on fisheries and how to use that information to recommend policies to state issues and policymakers, according to the press release.

Other members of the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force include Duncan Fields, Kevin Delaney, Ragnar Alstrom, Stephanie Madsen, Raymond May and Linda Kozak. John Jensen will serve as the chair of the task force and Tommy Sheridan will take the seat of vice chair.

Administrative Order No. 326, which established the task force, can be viewed in full at the website of the Office of the Governor.

The force will meet monthly, at a minimum, according to the order.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.