Trawling in Alaska - Serious Issue or Responsible Business?

When fishing in Alaska, every fishery an individual would encounter has limits. These limits exist not only to ensure that recreational users can all share the resources, but also to protect the resource from over-fishing. This seems like a smart plan that would keep the resources renewable and healthy. This is why it is so commonly used in Alaska in all state fisheries. It is only when one takes a look at the federal fisheries that it seems they run on some sort of other plan where abundance of fish species it is not necessarily the top priority, specifically in the Alaska trawling fisheries.

So what is trawl fishing and why and what limits are they pushing?

Trawling in Alaska exists for several species and are primarily ran and fished by nonresident boats and crews that travel from Seattle every year. These massive mechanized vessels use large nets that drag across the bottom of the sea floor and at different heights in the mid-water column targeting Sole, Flounder, and other species.

how alaska trawling works

As you can assume, these nets have a tendency to also gather other species not targeted, but often die (90 percent of the time in some areas) during the course of this process. Some of these non-targeted species are often much more valuable than the targeted catch such as Halibut and Sable fish. This dead accidental caught fish as a result of trawling in Alaska is referred to as "bycatch".

alaska trawling vessel

Federal law prohibits Trawlers from keeping bycatch to avoid incentivizing targeting those species, so it is discarded right back into the ocean. You read that right! Halibut, Sable fish and other valuable species are caught, killed and dumped right back into the ocean while trying to catch fish that are far less valuable.

How often does this happen? In 2020 alone, trawling in Alaska resulted in a halibut bycatch mortality of 4.6 million pounds statewide! That means an average of 1 pound of halibut was wasted every 5.64 seconds as of Oct 10, 2020.

trawling in alaska

One should keep in mind that is not the total halibut bycatch or the exact number of dead bycatch, but only an estimate based on self-reporting by the Trawler captains or federal observers who are not required to be onboard 100 percent of the time. It doesn’t end just with Halibut, but the following species as well:

-Statewide King Salmon Trawl Bycatch Mortality: 33,710 individual King Salmon; an average of one King Salmon wasted every 11.69 minutes during 2020.
-Statewide "other" salmon(sockeye, coho, pink, chum): 276,095 individual salmon; an average of 1 "other" salmon wasted every 1.42 minutes during 2020.
-BSAI Sablefish(blackcod): 8,146,081 lbs; an average of 1 pound of sablefish wasted every 2.90 seconds during 2020.
-Statewide Crab(bairdi, golden king, opilio red king): 774,929 individual crab; an average of 1 crab wasted every 30.52 seconds during 2020.

Please note that all figures are MORTALITY numbers (dead fish). Many more fish were caught and released, often in marginal condition, but are not considered "dead" by NOAA Fisheries.

The NOAA Fisheries Catch and Landing Reports in Alaska are compiled based upon reporting by onboard fisheries observers, as well as self-reporting by trawl captains. In the Gulf of Alaska, trawl captains are allowed to "self-report" their bycatch for 80% of their trips. Many believe that self-reported bycatch numbers should be doubled or tripled.

The approximate dockside value of the trawl bycatch waste listed above is 57.2 million dollars. The approximate market value of the trawl bycatch waste listed above is 125 million dollars.

This article ONLY lists discard rates of highly commercial valuable species (which would normally be targeted in the conventional catch-and-keep fisheries). When all affected species are added up, total trawl bycatch for the State of Alaska is around 1 BILLION pounds of bycatch every 4 years.

If you are thinking, “Well don’t they have limits and caps on this that would shut down the fishery?” We would think so too. Looking at just the prized sable fish catch in October, trawlers had already gone over quota by a whopping 455%! That means at one point in September, trawlers wasted sable fish at a rate of 2 pounds per second. It makes you wonder how a species can sustain that type of harvest, let alone how this negatively impacts the livelihood of Alaskan fisherman who target these species to provide for their families.

alaska halibut bycatch

Very few trawl fisheries (possibly none) in the United States have proven themselves to be sustainable at historic rates for 100 years; with many lasting less than 50 years. Alaska is currently the "Last Frontier" of the United States trawl industry.
It is this unsustainable style of fishing and management that has driven the Alaska Outdoor Council to oppose this Trawler fishing in Alaska and encourages AOC members to get involved in this process!

It all starts with your comments to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and attending meetings! You can make a comment to the NPFMC today at

Article by Caleb Martin and David Bayes

declining shrimp numbers due to trawling
A shrimp bag coming aboard on the Salu, off Kodiak Island in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Dave Jackson. The late great Western Gulf of Alaska shrimp fishery went from 33,000 lbs of landings in 1958 to 122 million pounds in 1973, to 0 and a permanent fishery closure in 1986.

- original post by Kodiak Maritime Museum

1 comment

This is very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

Nisha Batel April 17, 2021

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