Western Alaska chum bycatch limits are moving forward — slowly

Summer chum salmon drying on a fish rack. (Matthew Smith/KNOM)

Proposals to limit chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea are moving ahead, but slowly. After reviewing recommendations over the weekend, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council asked for further analysis to help develop possible chum bycatch limits or additional regulations on the Bering Sea pollock industry. 

It’s a small step in a slow federal fishery management process.

Supporters of bycatch limits say reducing the accidental catch of chum and chinook salmon in the Bering Sea could help improve runs along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, which have seen record-low returns in recent years. But the pollock industry is pushing back. 

Mellisa Johnson is government affairs and policy director for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium and a member of the council’s advisory panel. She said while the council is moving in the right direction, the motion doesn’t immediately address villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim that have been hit hardest by the chum and chinook crash.

“Indigenous people … have provided testimony [that] they have not been able to fish for three years,” she said. “There’s a high possibility that they may not be able to fish with 2023 being the fourth year.”

Salmon is central to life in Western Alaska. Residents, environmentalists and other pro-subsistence advocates spent hours testifying in favor of bycatch limits last week, describing the devastating impacts to food security and Indigenous culture without it.

“Hopefully there’s enough other salmon species runs that will work to accommodate the food security issues, but it’s really hard to say … that [Western Alaskans are] going to get their needs met,” Johnson said. “More than likely, that’s not going to happen.”

The Western Alaska salmon crash is likely driven by a number of factors, including climate change. It’s not certain new bycatch limits would improve the runs, since only about 10% of chum intercepted in the Bering Sea are headed for Western Alaska, according to genetic studies.

But the council’s motion acknowledges that the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery is responsible for keeping some proportion of chum salmon from returning to Alaska rivers.  

Chinook bycatch limits are already in place in the Bering Sea, and the number of chinook accidentally caught remains low. Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, said the idea of adding chum bycatch limits is “scary” for the groundfish trawlers he represents. 

He said the impact to trawlers depends on what the council ultimately decides, but a constraining hard cap could close the fishery.

“The Bering Sea pollock fishery is one of the largest, valuable fisheries in the world,” he said. “So there will be huge losses, huge revenue losses, and lots of jobs loss.”

The Bering Sea and Aleutian Island pollock fishery was valued at $448 million in 2019, according to a NOAA Fisheries report.

Paine noted that the fishery supports coastal communities with processing plants like Dutch Harbor, Akutan and Sand Point. Sixty-five Western Alaska villages also participate in the Community Development Quota, or CDQ, program, which allocates a percentage of pollock and other species for those communities to harvest.

Tim Bristol, executive director of the pro-subsistence advocacy organization SalmonState, said he’s disappointed with the council’s process, which he said prioritizes the pollock fishery above subsistence harvesters. 

“You have this industry that I think the government, via the council, sees as too big to fail. And I just worry that that has really disturbing implications for everybody else who counts on that ecosystem for their livelihood and their way of life,” Bristol said.

Meanwhile, last week, Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Association of Village Presidents, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that current federal fishery management plans are outdated and don’t adequately prioritize the needs of subsistence users. 

Kate Glover, senior attorney at Earthjustice, said they’re pushing for the agency to consider different ways to approach fisheries management.

“That might include things like looking at changes in bycatch, or what could be done as far as catch limits go and how that affects other fish that are not being targeted by the fisheries but are important to subsistence users,” Glover said.

The analysis the council requested over the weekend will go through a series of reviews and public comment periods. Its first review is scheduled for the council’s October meeting. Brian Ritchie, chair of the council’s advisory panel, said final action on the proposals is scheduled for June 2024. If a bycatch limit does pass, it won’t be active until the 2025 season. 

“It’s a complicated process,” Ritchie said. “Sometimes effecting real change and actions like this — it can take time.” 

a portrait of a woman outside

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavithahere.

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