A powerful council that oversees the massive pollock fishing industry in the Bering Sea voted Monday night to place an unprecedented cap on the number of salmon that pollock fishermen accidentally kill each year.
The decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council strikes at a debate that's boiled among Alaska fishermen for years: whether the pollock industry is inadvertently leaving Western Alaska villages without enough king salmon in their rivers.
It's a huge question. Hanging in the balance are an industry that catches billions of pounds of pollock a year to make everything from fish sticks to imitation crab meat, and the culture and economies of cash-poor villages that rely on high-value salmon for food and money.
After a marathon of public hearings over the weekend, the council voted unanimously Monday to cap the number of salmon the pollock industry can catch to 60,000 fish or fewer, and to create a system of rewards and penalties meant to encourage boats to avoid wasting salmon.
The goal is to allow more salmon to return to the Yukon and other rivers to spawn. Fishing vessels or companies that break the limit would have to stop fishing mid-season.
"I fully recognize that this reduction is not a silver bullet," said council chairman Eric Olson, before the vote. "It's not going to magically make things OK in the streams of Western Alaska ... (but) even a small, incremental increase of spawners that reach the rivers is going to help the recovery."
But the vote is sure to disappoint those in Western Alaska who asked for far tighter controls on the pollock fishery.
"We have been promised by the trawl fleet that they will try and avoid the bycatch as much as they can. But look what happened in 2007 (a record year for wasted salmon)," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents.
His group represents 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. There, a lack of commercial salmon fishing combined with an early winter and high energy prices left some families struggling to pay for food and fuel.
Pollock fishing industry representatives counter that the number of salmon they'll actually catch each year will likely be well below the approved cap.
Paul MacGregor, representing the At-Sea Processors Association, called the cap a "safety net."
"If we deliver through these incentive plans that we have proposed, and they work as we think that they will, what you're going to find is that the actual bycatch in the pollock fishery is significantly lower than that," he said.
In a tense exchange just before the vote, Nicole Ricci, a foreign affairs officer for the State Department, told the council that the new cap wouldn't do enough to meet a treaty agreement between the U.S. and Canada to ensure strong salmon stocks in the Yukon River.
"I don't understand how you can call this a reduction," she said, noting the upper limit of the cap is higher than the average bycatch over the past decade.
"This has been one of the most disappointing things that I have sat through."
Council member Sam Cotten said the new limits will prevent unusually high bycatch years in the future, and through incentives could average bycatch in the low 30,000s.
"We have accomplished something. ... This is a better effort than those seen in the past,' he said.
The Bering Sea pollock industry caught a record 121,638 salmon in 2007, before a sharp decline in bycatch numbers last year.
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd , who is a member of the council, proposed a cap of slightly more than 68,000 salmon. The council voted 7-4 to reduce that upper limit to 60,000.
If the industry's salmon bycatch routinely exceeds recent averages, the cap would drop down to about 47,600 salmon, under the motion approved by the board. Fishing vessels or companies that refused to take part in incentive programs would face much lower bycatch limits.
Kodiak pollock fisherman Michael Martin told the council before the vote that the new restrictions being considered on his industry could leave small operations like his without any margin for error when it comes to salmon bycatch.
"Maybe the best option is for me to sell out, whatever that might be worth, because I still have grave concerns that I'm going to be able to work under these scenarios," he said.
The Bering Sea pollock fishery is worth well over $1 billion a year and halting production early could stop production on cheap seafood meals that are shipped across the globe.
But Francis Thompson, of the Yup'ik village of St. Marys, said it's Yukon-Kuskokwim communities that have been giving up their fishing, including putting limits on subsistence fishing, only to see salmon runs continue to decline.
"We don't see the results of our sacrifices," he said.
The fishery management council, made up of government and industry representatives, makes recommendations to the U.S. commerce secretary, who most approve the new bycatch rules before they can take effect in 2011.
Those pushing for the lowest bycatch limits said every fish counts and that the pollock industry has shown that it can achieve low bycatch numbers in the past. Industry representatives warned that reducing bycatch alone wouldn't necessarily rebuild weak salmon runs, which might also be hurt by climate or oceanographic changes, disease and predators.
More than 200 people signed up to testify before the council as it considered the unprecedented cap on salmon bycatch. All day Monday, fishermen clogged the halls of the Hilton Anchorage hotel, waiting to see what the council would do.
The matter isn't just a competition between the pollock fleet and Western Alaska villages, partly because some Alaska communities get money from the pollock fishery through a federal initiative called the Community Development Quota program.
George Bright Sr. is the village public safety officer in Goodnews Bay, a coastal village more than 100 miles south of Bethel. His local CDQ corporation creates jobs and pays for scholarships that help people get their pilots license or go to trade schools, he said.
You'd think Bright, who wore a shirt that read "Pollock provides" to the council meeting, would want a lenient cap on salmon bycatch, to avoid causing any closures to the pollock fishery. But Bright said he worries about villagers on the Yukon River too.
"It makes me sad because no matter what decision they come up with ... the fight will still be there," he said.
By KYLE HOPKINS