The U.S. Commerce Department has approved a new plan to cap the number of king salmon caught each year by the Bering Sea pollock fleet.
The limits are meant to prevent trawlers from wasting chinook, or king, salmon that would otherwise return to the Yukon River and other spawning grounds. Western Alaska leaders who had pushed for much tighter restrictions Wednesday blasted Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's decision to accept the plan, which was recommended last year by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
"Western Alaskan tribes as well as those responsible for managing our fisheries in river spoke loudly and clearly, but our requests fell on deaf ears to both the council and the Secretary of Commerce," said Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, in a written statement from regional nonprofits and fisheries groups.
But federal officials say the new program will change the way the pollock fleet operates in the Bering Sea -- and that the fishery council's focus on king salmon bycatch is already paying off with a sharp reduction in the number of the species the trawlers catch.
"People are generally recognizing that the fleet has already changed its fishing practices," said Doug Mecum, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska.
Fewer than 20,000 kings a year have been caught by the pollock fleet over the past three years, Mecum said. In contrast, the Bering Sea fleet caught more than 120,000 chinook in 2007 -- prompting the council to consider the unprecedented cap on bycatch.
King salmon are a rare source of cash and jobs in Yukon River villages, but poor returns have led to closures and restrictions on commercial and subsistence fishing in recent years. Some Western Alaska fishermen blame the pollock industry -- one of the biggest fisheries in the nation -- for contributing to the decline by intercepting salmon that would otherwise return to the river.
In April 2009, the fishery council recommended the Commerce Department limit the pollock fleet's catch to fewer than 47,951 king salmon a year -- or up to 60,000 in any two out of seven years if the fleet participates in an incentive plan.
Groups such as the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents dozens of Yukon-Kuskokwim villages, called for a bycatch cap of 30,000 king salmon.
Locke in January declared the 2008 and 2009 Yukon River king salmon seasons a commercial fishing disaster. The Commerce Department said at the time that the cause of the disappearing salmon isn't fully understood but that scientists believe it's primarily natural events: changing ocean and river conditions and changing temperatures and food sources.
A Senate committee inserted $5 million in aid for Yukon River fishing families into a funding bill that must now be approved by the full House and Senate.
By KYLE HOPKINS