Federal fisheries managers hold Bering Sea pollock quota steady

Pollock at a processing plant in Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Berett Wilber)

The total amount of pollock allowed to be scooped up by trawlers in the Bering Sea will stay the same in 2024. In its Dec. 9 meeting in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to keep the total allowable catch for pollock at its current level of 1.3 million metric tons, a move that has generated criticism from conservationists, tribes and the trawling industry alike.

Alaska’s pollock fishery is responsible for the vast majority of salmon bycatch in the region. And amid alarming declines in returns of multiple species of salmon to Western Alaska rivers, the pollock trawl fishery has faced increasing criticism for its perceived role driving the crisis. But federal fisheries managers and the trawling industry pushed back, asserting that the claims are unfounded.

Trade organizations representing the trawl industry said during testimony at the council meeting that the decision to hold the pollock quota steady is misguided.

Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, told the council the move could lead to missed opportunities to harvest increased numbers of mature pollock in the Bering Sea.

“We can’t bank them like some fish species. They will age out of the system and they will be not available to the fishery,” Madsen said.

Madsen also told the council that the industry request for a modest increase to the pollock quota, which was ultimately denied, was already a compromise.

“I would just remind you that the Russian fishery in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Western Bering Sea take more pollock than our Eastern Bering Sea pollock,” Madsen said. “So a 20,000 metric ton increase in the Eastern Bering Sea is likely to have very little impact on a global situation.”

Communities hit hard

On the other side of the debate, tribes and conservation groups representing communities reeling from salmon crashes in Western Alaska have called for reining in the pollock fishery.

“We consider the salmon that do return to our rivers are survivors of climate change, which they experience in both their freshwater and marine stages,” said Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Programs Manager Terese Vicente. The commission is one of the groups pushing for increased tribal co-management of resources in Western Alaska.

“We ought to protect every one of them to be precautionary, to be protective with the factors we can control because they’re so vulnerable to climate-driven ecosystem changes,” Vicente said.

Dozens of tribes impacted by salmon crashes have made calls for a greater voice at the federal management table, including advocating for Alaska Native representation on the 11-member North Pacific council.

Council member Jon Kurland noted that requests from the Association of Village Council Presidents and Tanana Chiefs Conference to meet with the council ahead of the meeting hadn’t panned out.

“We have been making a lot of efforts to improve our process for tribal consultation and to try to ensure that when tribes and tribal consortia and so forth are interested in talking to us that we do that before the council takes final action,” Kurland said. “We made a number of attempts to reach out, and unfortunately were not able to make those connections.”

Both organizations are suing suing the federal government over the way the Alaska pollock fishery is managed.

Council member Anne Vanderhoeven, who introduced the motion to hold the 2024 pollock quota the same as this year, pushed back against the notion that the fishery is a significant driver of salmon crashes.

“We have heard calls and public comment to reduce the pollock TAC [total allowable catch], and recognition of the current salmon crisis in Western Alaska rivers, and the devastating impacts that crisis has on subsistence users and Alaska Native cultures,” Vanderhoeven said. “But the best scientific information available does not support the assertion that relatively small adjustments to the pollock TAC will measurably or significantly increase salmon escapement to Western Alaska.”

The pollock quota for 2024 is set, but for 2025 the quota has yet to be determined.

The council’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5 to Feb. 12 in Seattle, where it plans to discuss potentially refining the environmental impact statement guiding management decisions.

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