Alaska pollock trawlers are feeling pressure over salmon bycatch, so this reporter went to see for himself

A fisherman in rain gear and a helmet stands on a pile of silver fish.
Deckhand Martin Vasquez walks through a pile of fish as they transfer from the net to holds underneath the deck of the Northern Hawk factory trawler on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in the Bering Sea. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Bering Sea factory trawlers scoop up tens of thousands of pollock at a time, and pressure is intensifying to avoid catching salmon as populations of chum and chinook have plummeted in recent years, causing closures for subsistence harvesting.

The trawlers are not entirely to blame — warming oceans due to human-caused climate change are almost certainly a factor — but they have drawn the ire of salmon advocates from Western Alaska to Washington D.C.

For a recent story in the Anchorage Daily News, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, fisheries reporter Hal Bernton visited a Bering Sea factory trawler to see how its crew caught and processed pollock, and also how the captain works to keep salmon bycatch low.

And while Bernton has reported from the decks of much smaller boats, he says the factory trawlers are like floating cities.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hal Bernton: This is a 341-foot vessel that I went out on, the Northern Hawk, with a crew of 129 people. And most of them work below the deck in a fish factory that, basically when the fishing is reasonable, operates 24 hours a day. Then there are these incredible fillet machines that will fillet 180 fish a minute, and the job of the human is basically to just feed the machine 24 hours a day. And it’s kind of mind-numbing work. Your hands move constantly to make sure the fish are positioned correctly.

Casey Grove: So these are the folks I feel like they could say, “Hey, you know, I just work here.” But there are a lot of folks outside of that, that have pretty strong feelings about trawling. And it kind of comes down to pollock versus salmon, right? And crab also, but a lot of people are talking about salmon bycatch. Can you remind me what that conflict is?

HB: Sure. They remove a huge amount of fish every year, more than a million metric tons. It’s up over 2 billion pounds of fish. And this has been happening for decades, first by foreign fleets who fished off the Alaska coast and then more recently by the U.S. fleets. And specifically, in recent years, as the western Alaska chum salmon runs have collapsed, they do catch during the summer months, like when I was out, some chum salmon. And there’s been tremendous concern, as subsistence and commercial harvests in western Alaska have been shut down across a lot of areas in recent years, about that bycatch.

Now it is kind of complicated, because a lot of the chum they catch would actually go back to Asia. But about 18 to 20% of these fish, depending on the year, would be returning to western Alaska. So there’s no cap on how many of those fish they can catch. And there’s a tremendous interest, and pressure, from tribal groups and others to basically set some limits on how many chum can be caught. And the pressure is really on these guys. Now, when I was out, staying away from chum was a big priority for the fleet.

CG: And that seems pretty tough, right? Because, I think you noted in your story, that often the salmon and the pollock will be kind of at the same depth and in the same areas. So can you talk about that? I mean, how difficult is it to actually avoid salmon when you’re trying to catch pollock?

HB: Well, there are cameras, at least in the factory trawler nets. And when you look at these cameras, by the time you see these fish, sometimes you can see the salmon actually coming into the net, but by then it’s kind of too late. When the skipper sees that there are dozens of salmon coming in along with the pollock, they move to another area. It’s not always a sure thing, when they move, that there will be less or maybe there won’t be enough pollock. So it’s been a challenge.

CG: Maybe another thing that complicates this a little bit further, and I think, you know, some people would say this is a positive for the pollock fishing fleet out there, is that some of those boats are, in a way, owned by Kuskokwim River communities. Can you explain that? How did that come to be?

HB: That was a really interesting thing for me that I wanted to explore, to understand, is that increasingly, the pollock fleet, although they may go down to Seattle every year at the end of the harvest for boat work and everything else, and essentially are home-ported in Seattle, increasingly, shares of the boats are owned by six Alaska nonprofits that are invested with shares of the pollock harvests through federal action. And the boat, the vessel I went on, the Northern Hawk, is 100% owned by the CDQ group Coastal Villages Region Fund that represents some 20 communities in western Alaska. So those same communities have been hard hit by the collapse of the chum runs in recent years. So there’s been a lot of pressure and increasingly tension with tribes who feel that there needs to be more restrictions, and they have filed actions, a lawsuit in federal courts, trying to force the federal regulators to reconsider the levels of pollock and restrict the harvest.

CG: Yeah. Well, in that effort to bring fewer chum salmon aboard as bycatch, what sort of technological innovations did you see?

HB: Well, basically, they call it a salmon excluder. It’s a hole in the net with a light. The salmon are strong swimmers, so the idea is that, even if they get in the net, they can swim through this hole, they’d be attracted to the light, and get back out to freedom. And that does save some salmon, but it’s far from 100%. So there’s an effort now, a researcher, to do what’s called a more active excluder, where if the cameras picked up salmon coming into the nets, this sort of ramp would drop down and literally herd the salmon to the hole. And that device could certainly help as long as you were watching the net to see, and the cameras to see, when those salmon were coming in. And that might be ready in a couple of years. There’s also efforts to speed up the genetic testing of the salmon so that you could know right away, at least within a day or so or two, rather than months later, hey, were are these coming from Russia and going back to Russia? So not so big of concern? Or are they going back to western Alaska and, hey, there’s a really big concern, so we need to stay away from that area? Because right now that genetic testing happens, but not until way after the fact.

CG: Interesting, yeah. So, you know, there are a lot of layers to this, a lot of different opinions. We haven’t even talked about the prospect of an ocean heat wave and kind of that that huge existential problem of climate change, which is clearly at play here. But aside from that, when people talk about salmon bycatch and pollock trawling, where do you see this issue going from here?

HB: Well, clearly, the federal council is wrestling to put some limits on the fleet. And I think the fleet knows that, one way or another, and they’re saying, “Give us this sort of flexibility to sort of do it ourselves.” Because there are these cooperatives, there’s information sharing, there’s hotspots that are developed fairly quickly, where the fleet can know, hey, don’t go there, because there’s a lot of chum. And they’re sort of saying, “Hey, let us continue along this path.” And the tribes are saying, “We don’t trust you. We think there needs to be a hard cap, and much more serious restrictions on what you do. We’ve, our people, our communities, have sacrificed so much, and now it’s time for the trawl fleet to feel some pain.”

And of course, the CDQ groups and the tribes, some of them are representing the same regions and in very different capacities now, so there’s a lot of more tension between CDQs and the tribes that plays out in these meetings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is set up by Congress to go ahead and recommend and set harvest rules that are then finalized through NOAA Fisheries. Unfortunately, it’s a long convoluted process. There’s a lot of people who are very, very frustrated with the council process. There are industry officials that serve on the council, and it’s including one representative now, a council member, from Coastal Villages who was just appointed, so there’s increasing tension and frustration in some of these meetings.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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