Every year a powerful commercial fishing fleet scoops up billions of pounds of Bering Sea pollock to make products such as fish sticks and imitation crab.
It's an immense harvest, and many Western Alaska villagers have grown upset about it. They say the fleet increasingly is catching and killing a far more precious fish -- chinook, or king salmon -- while in pursuit of pollock.
This week in Anchorage, the issue is expected to produce an epic debate as federal fishery managers consider an unprecedented limit on how many chinook the pollock fleet can catch each year.
To many in this fight, the stakes couldn't be higher.
Pollock is the nation's biggest commercial catch by weight, worth well in excess of $1 billion after the white-meated bottom fish are processed.
Depending on how stringent the chinook cap is, the pollock fleet could be forced to pull its huge nets from the water and stop fishing before the normal quota is reached.
According to one major fishing company, that could mean the loss of more than 2 million cheap seafood meals for every thousand tons of foregone pollock catch.
People on the other side of the debate, however, say a tough chinook cap is vital to prevent the fleet from netting salmon on the high seas before they can return to the Yukon and other rivers to spawn and to provide commercial, subsistence and cultural opportunity for villagers.
They blame the pollock fleet for weak chinook returns to the Yukon and other drainages in recent years, and say the industry is capable of avoiding salmon if only the government will enforce a firm cap.
"For some people, their feathers are up as far as they've ever been. There's a lot of expectation here," said Karen Gillis, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, a nonprofit representing villagers demanding lower salmon catches in the pollock fishery.
Assuming further eruptions from Redoubt volcano don't prevent too many participants from flying to Anchorage, the chinook debate will begin Monday when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and related panels convene at the downtown Hilton hotel.
Four days have been set aside for the salmon issue, with a council decision likely not coming until next weekend. Passions are sure to run high.
"It's one of the biggest issues we've ever seen on our agenda, certainly in the last 10 years," said Chris Oliver, the council's executive director.
One of the toughest problems in commercial fisheries management is controlling bycatch -- the incidental catch of one kind of fish while pursuing another. A notable example is dolphins caught in tuna fisheries.
The problem in the Bering Sea is that chinook sometimes swim with the pollock, and so they're swept up in the yawning nets. Generally, it's a fatal encounter.
The salmon don't become fish sticks like the pollock, however. They're classified as a "prohibited species" and must be thrown overboard, though some are donated to a food aid program.
Through most of this decade, chinook bycatch has trended up and hit a record of 121,638 fish in 2007 before dropping steeply last year. This season's bycatch rate appears moderate so far.
The council is considering proposals to cap the fleet's annual bycatch at 68,392 chinook or fewer.
Many villagers who have seen years of weak chinook returns to the Yukon River and other drainages blame the pollock fleet for the decline of a fish prized as a subsistence food as well as one of the few sources of village cash.
High fuel and food prices have heightened the pain in parts of rural Alaska with salmon problems.
"We now have families that can't feed themselves," two village women, Ann Strongheart of Nunam Iqua, near Emmonak, and Victoria Briggs of Ugashik, wrote regulators recently. They're among many villagers urging a tight cap on chinook bycatch in the pollock fleet.
The battle over salmon bycatch doesn't cleave neatly into two camps -- Western Alaska villagers versus the predominantly Seattle-based Bering Sea fishing fleet.
That's because many villagers themselves have become, in effect, shareholders in this very fleet through a federal initiative called the Community Development Quota program.
This program reserves 10 percent of the Bering Sea pollock harvest for the economic benefit of Western Alaska villages. Six fishing companies catch the pollock on behalf of villagers, and the companies have invested in some of the nation's most powerful fishing ships -- trawlers that can catch tons of pollock, plus a few chinook, with a single sweep of their nets.
The chairman of the 11-member council, Eric Olson, himself works as a manager for one of these village fishing companies, the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association. The company owns shares in two pollock trawlers as well as a huge pollock processing ship called the Golden Alaska.
Olson, who is of Yup'ik descent and grew up in Dillingham, said his own example shows how complex and difficult the chinook bycatch issue is. "What I'm looking for is some sort of balance, one that will preserve the long-term health of the chinook resource while also giving the pollock industry a fighting chance to get their pollock caught," he said.
Whether a cap on chinook bycatch will automatically result in more chinook returning to Western Alaska rivers is uncertain.
Many other factors could account for weak returns, including climate or oceanographic changes, low survival rates of baby salmon migrating out the mouths of rivers to sea, or the effect of disease and predators.
What's more, genetic data show that up to half of the chinook netted as bycatch originate from elsewhere such as other Alaska regions, Russia, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
Fear and innovation
Pollock fishermen are resigned to a cap, but they want a limit they can live with, said Brent Paine of United Catcher Boats, a Seattle trade group of 65 pollock trawlers.
To avoid fishery shutdowns that could strand millions of dollars worth of pollock in the water, boat owners will have to rely on skill and innovation to avoid chinook while still hunting pollock, he said.
"It's going to be a very scary thing for them," Paine said.
The tricks include using excluders -- devices placed in nets that allow salmon to escape but not pollock. Also, vessel captains will have to swap information to steer clear of "hot spots" where chinook are thick.
To win as liberal a cap as possible, the fishing industry is proposing two complex plans that would dice up the overall bycatch allowance among individual boats, and would provide incentives such as money or tradable bycatch "credits" for fishermen who keep bycatch low.
Not everyone is enamored of these plans.
Dillingham resident Robin Samuelsen, a former council member, favors a simple, firm limit on the number of chinook the fleet can take.
"These incentive plans, all they are is legal license to kill more of our chinook salmon," he said.
Like Olson, the council chairman, Samuelsen also happens to head a Community Development Quota company that owns shares of Bering Sea pollock fishing vessels.
He acknowledges a tight bycatch limit -- he favors 47,000 chinook or fewer annually -- could cost his own company money. But faced with that painful prospect, he believes his and other fishing companies will adapt.
"If they can't clean up their act, they deserve to be shut down," Samuelsen said. "We're not going to trade pollock for our chinook salmon."
Council meeting starts Monday at Hilton
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider measures this week to limit the incidental catch of chinook salmon in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. The 11-member council of government and industry representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon helps regulate fisheries off Alaska through recommendations to the U.S. commerce secretary.
The meeting is open to the public and begins at 8 a.m. Monday at the Hilton hotel in downtown Anchorage. Two panels that advise the council meet initially before the council itself convenes Wednesday morning. People can sign up to give public testimony to the panels as well as the council. Sign-up sheets are provided in meeting rooms.
A council decision isn't expected until next weekend. Further eruptions of Redoubt volcano could disrupt travel for council members and upset the schedule, the council chairman said.