Kuskokwim River working group tackles trawler salmon bycatch

Two crew men shovel a deck full of fish on board a large boat
Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice shovel pollock on the deck of the Commodore as another crew member, Brian Hagen, holds the hose. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It is still a mystery to state biologists why king and chum salmon numbers are decreasing in Western Alaska. But ask any local fishermen on the Kuskokwim, and they’ll likely tell you commercial fishing trawlers in the Bering Sea are the problem.

“We have these restrictions for, like, almost 10 years and the fish count is always low every year,” said Kotlik subsistence fisherman Patrick Black in a June meeting of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, which advises state fishery managers.

“It doesn’t seem to get any better with these restrictions. Why not just go out there and deal with the other half of the problem,” Black said. “The trawlers, the pollock big fleet fisheries.”

Black is not the only one pointing fingers at trawlers.

“Everybody on this river is talking about that this summer,” said Mary Peltola on KYUK’s Fish Talk in June. Peltola is a member of the state’s Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group and executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

“We are definitely concerned about bycatch and trawlers,” Peltola said. “It is definitely our number one priority going forward.”

RELATED: Subsistence users, scientists seek answers for chum salmon declines

In its last meeting on Nov. 11, the state working group took multiple actions to try to reduce the amount of bycatch salmon that ends up on trawlers. To do so, local tribal managers would have to convince federal managers to tighten restrictions. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal body, manages commercial trawlers in the Bering Sea.

The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission wrote a letter to the council with two main asks: eliminate salmon bycatch from trawlers completely and add seats on the council for Alaska Native tribes to have a say in commercial trawling in the Bering Sea.

Akiak’s Mike Williams Sr., a member of the state’s working group and chairman of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was one of dozens of Y-K Delta residents who made the plea to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its last meeting.

“On the Yukon there was zero fishing this summer,” Williams said. “And we haven’t met our levels of harvest on the Kuskokwim River for the last 10 years either. So we’ve been really struggling along, and now I think the council needs to take action.”

Federal managers were resistant to the subsistence fishers’ requests. In a separate interview, Dr. Diana Stram, a senior scientist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said that only a small percentage of the Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea would be headed toward Western Alaska rivers.

“About 16% is from coastal West Alaska, and less than 1% is from the upper and middle Yukon. And the vast majority of the rest of it is of Asian origin,” Stram said.

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Tribal fishery managers say they have several problems with that explanation. They say the data being used to determine whether the salmon are from Western Alaska is outdated, and it’s not measuring the amount of chum salmon bycatch from Western Alaska. With record low chum runs across multiple rivers, they want to know that information, too.

The state’s local advisory group is adding its support for these requests. During its Nov. 11 meeting, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group passed a motion to write a letter to federal managers supporting the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s requests to eliminate salmon bycatch and to include tribal representation. The state’s working group’s membership overlaps with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

In the same meeting, the state’s working group passed a resolution asking the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get the latest data on how many Chinook and chum salmon from Western Alaska trawlers catch by gathering new genetic samples from salmon caught on trawlers and in Western Alaska rivers.

This was actually the second time the group made this request. Back in July, the working group sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy requesting this genetic sampling work to be done. The state’s response did not provide a yes or no answer to this request, much to the disappointment of Peltola and the working group.

“You know, maybe we can just remind the commissioner and the governor of our initial questions,” Peltola said.

In the end, the state working group is an advisory body and has no legal authority over state or federal managers.

Members of the working group acknowledged that commercial trawlers are likely just one part of the reason that salmon numbers are depressed. The working group has also asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to examine how climate change is impacting salmon.

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