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App creators hope to fold more local voices into fishing council process

Skipper Science is entering its third season this summer.
Sabine Poux
Skipper Science is entering its third season this summer.

Federal fisheries managers are meeting in Anchorage this week to talk about Cook Inlet commercial fishing and salmon bycatch, among other big-ticket agenda items.

Alaskans behind the Skipper Science app say they’d like to see more local and indigenous voices at the forefront of these conversations, and they see their program, heading into its third season, as one way to do so.

Fishermen who use Skipper Science can log observations about marine weather and mammal sightings, and any other fisheries patterns or changes they notice when they’re out at sea.

This year, the app’s creators are hoping to boost and formalize that data collection process so they have more concrete on-the-water information to hand to managers making decisions about their fisheries.

“We’re now working on pathways to include our observations and our data summaries into the reports that do land in front of the fisheries management council staff as an update,” said Hannah-Marie Garcia with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the tribal government that developed the app.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island has been working on the technology for years. In 2021, it joined forces with the Juneau-based nonprofit SalmonState to launch the app.

Since then, they’ve gathered two fishing seasons worth of observations. At least 10 reports last season came from Cook Inlet; the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association was a local sponsor of the program, last year.

Lindsey Bloom with SalmonState said the observations logged provide important local context to complex and controversial fishing decisions.

“Skipper Science is a way to bring the perspectives of local-based, Alaska-based small-boat fishermen into the process, where we do have challenges with representation,” Bloom said.

Local and indigenous representation has been a sticking point for the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which makes decisions about fishing in Alaska’s federal waters. At its meeting this week, the council is considering putting a hard cap on chum salmon bycatch, which could have implications for western Alaska, where stocks are crashing.

None of the NPFMC’s members today represent tribal entities. Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola has advocated adding two Alaska Native representatives to the council, in the rewrite of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Last month, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointment to the council drew criticism from tribal and subsistence fishing advocates, who said his choice to nominate another council member with with roots in the pollock industry and to pass over a representative from a tribal organization was disappointing. (Dunleavy said in his nomination letter his office “makes every effort to encourage and seek out qualified women, people of color, and individuals representative of historically underserved communities during this process.”)

As it stands, fishermen who aren’t on the council are largely left to weigh in in the public comment portion of every meeting. Garcia said they’d like to push that further.

“The fishermen tend to be a little bit left out. And there’s kind of this mystery, a little bit, in terms of fisheries management — and how that can be an open door for our observers,” Garcia said.

Garcia said they’re designing research methods alongside NOAA Fisheries to collect data from the deck to better understand the health and ecology of the fisheries. In 2022, she said they collected over two dozen samples from black cod to learn more about what the fish were eating, for example.

This year, they’re also hoping to collect data on water temperature from sensors attached to boats in Alaska’s oceans.

Bloom also said those kinds of observations can speed up the process of data collection, to make it more responsive to the rapid changes happening in Alaska’s waters today.

“I think what we know now, certainly from my perspective, as a fisherman in Alaska, is that we need management that can be a lot more nimble and adaptive in real time than what we’re seeing happening at the council,” Bloom said. “And that is where these thousands of small boats peppered across the ocean, sprinkled across the ocean throughout Alaska, can be incredibly helpful.”

Skipper Science is looking for more fishermen to get involved with the app this upcoming season. Bloom said they’ll host training sessions in Kenai and Homer in May, with timing to be announced.

Find more about this week’s NPFMC meeting here.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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