A whale of a fish fight hit Anchorage this weekend and it's all about big numbers:
Billions of pounds of pollock are caught each year in the Bering Sea as part of one of the world's largest fisheries. But in cash-poor Western Alaska villages, where fuel prices approached $10 a gallon this winter, local fishermen said the pollock fleet is accidently catching and killing far too many of the salmon that the region counts on for food and money.
Now, more than 200 people have signed up to testify over the next several days at the Hilton Anchorage hotel, where the clash has come to a head at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Friday, each side began making its case.
The council is deciding whether to put an unprecedented cap on the number of king salmon the pollock fleet can catch each year, in an effort to boost salmon stocks in Alaska and Canada.
"For thousands of years, people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have harvested salmon for food," Ray Oney of Alakanuk told the council. When the pollock fleet also nets salmon, that hurts nearly 7,000 families in about 80 communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, he testified.
Doug Forsyth, president of a Washington state-based company that has fished for Bering Sea pollock for roughly 20 years, told the council that the massive fishery feeds people across the globe, from Nigeria to Eastern Europe to China.
"It's a hungry world out there, and we produce a heck of a lot of food," he said. Alaska pollock is also a key ingredient in fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches sold in the United States.
As the meeting rolled on, fishermen lined the hotel hallways, listening to the loudspeaker as they sat cross-legged or leaned against the walls. Someone handed out buttons that read "I love Chinook and Pollock."
Only a few of the hundreds signed up to testify got a chance to talk Friday, allowed to skip ahead to make their out-of-town flights. The council's staff said there should still be time this morning to sign up to talk before the public hearing resumes.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has written a massive review of how this "bycatch" of kings affects salmon in Alaska, and prefers a plan that would cap the fleet's annual bycatch at about 68,400 salmon or fewer.
State Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, a council member, in an interview framed the challenge facing the council: You want to get a handle on salmon bycatch, which could be contributing to dwindling salmon runs in a region that has relied on kings for generations, but you don't want to unnecessarily restrict a massive food fishery that generates revenue and jobs.
To complicate things even more, some of the Western Alaska villages get money from the pollock fishery through a federal initiative called the Community Development Quota Program, which gives them ownership of some of the pollock catch.
The 15 council members play a key role in regulating fishing in federal waters off Alaska. If the council were to recommend a ceiling and the U.S. Commerce Department adopt it, the fleet would have to pull its nets for the rest of the year once it caught that many king salmon.
The council's advisory panel, a separate group that began meeting earlier this week, recommends the 68,400 figure. The fleet would have to pull its nets for the rest of the year once it reached the limit.
Nicholas Tucker, the Emmonak man whose letter describing hardships in his village turned national attention to the region this winter, planned to push for a cap of about 32,000 kings, he said.
The fishing industry is proposing alternatives to a flat cap on bycatch. It has offered two complex plans that would carve the overall bycatch allowance among individual boats and give money or tradeable bycatch "credits" to those fishermen who keep bycatch low.
The salmon bycatch hit a record 121,600 kings in 2007, before a sharp decline last year.
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.
Council continues The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting continues today at the Hilton Anchorage downtown. The council's meeting is scheduled to run through Tuesday.