A new nominee to the Bering Sea fisheries management council would tip its balance toward tribes and away from trawlers.

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has advanced Becca Robbins Gisclair, an attorney and conservation advocate, for a seat currently held by Anne Vanderhoeven, who works in the trawling industry.

A new nominee to the Bering Sea fisheries management council would tip its balance toward tribes and away from trawlers.
Becca Robbins Gisclair (courtesy photo)

Tribal and environmental advocates calling for a crackdown on salmon and halibut bycatch are set to gain a new ally on the federal council that manages Alaska’s lucrative Bering Sea fisheries.

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee last week nominated Becca Robbins Gisclair, an attorney and conservation advocate, to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

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If U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo accepts Inslee’s recommendation, Gisclair, senior director of Arctic programs at the environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, would assume one of the council’s 11 voting positions.

She would replace Anne Vanderhoeven, a previous choice of Inslee’s who works at Seattle-based Arctic Storm Management Group. Arctic Storm’s parent company owns vessels that participate in the trawl industry, which sometimes accidentally scoop up salmon in their nets while they’re trying to catch pollock, a whitefish that goes into fish sandwiches sold by McDonald’s and other companies.

Inslee’s choice comes amid an intense fight at the council about tighter regulation of bycatch, and after what advocates described as a last-minute flurry of lobbying in an effort to convince Inslee to pick an ally of one side or the other in that dispute.

Gisclair has long been a forceful advocate for cracking down on trawlers — a position that aligns with small-boat halibut fishermen across Alaska, along with tribes that have witnessed crashes in salmon populations on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

“I've worked with Becca now for so many years. She's going to make the commercial fishing industry just squirm for a while,” said Brent Paine, executive director of a trawl industry trade group called United Catcher Boats.

Gisclair currently works from Bellingham, Washington, but previously lived in Alaska and worked for a Yukon River fisheries conservation group and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. In a phone interview Monday, she said she's "committed to sustainable fisheries management that centers our coastal communities and ecosystems and equity, in a way that hasn't always been reflected in our decisionmaking so far."

“I believe in sustainable fisheries, that we can fish sustainably,” she said.

Inslee’s choice of Gisclair is especially significant because many trawl companies are headquartered in Washington, and command substantial political influence. In an email, an Inslee spokesman, Mike Faulk, said that “the commercial fishing industry is important to him and has a long and important history in our state.”

“Conservation and climate are important issues to the governor, and he believes we need a balance of perspectives and potential solutions to the rapidly changing climate and growing complexities in our oceans,” Faulk said. “We also need to consider experience and perspective related to conservation of fisheries, ecosystems and habitat, and respect for environmental protections.”

Paine, from the trawler trade group, described Gisclair as “radical.”

“Go way back to every salmon bycatch measure that has been established by the Council — she's been pushing for the most extreme alternative,” he said.

Paine noted that the appointment process still isn’t complete; it’s possible that Raimondo, the commerce secretary, could choose a different candidate.

Inslee nominated four people for the seat currently held by Vanderhoeven, including Vanderhoeven herself. But Gisclair was his top-ranked choice, which the commerce secretary typically accepts.