Fisheries council to debate Gulf salmon bycatch limits

Kyle Hopkins

It's pollock versus kings, Round 2.

An influential fisheries council meeting today in Anchorage is debating whether to place an unprecedented limit on the number of chinook salmon that pollock trawlers can accidentally kill in the Gulf of Alaska.

If that sounds familiar, it's because the North Pacific Fishery Management Council met Downtown just two years ago to chew over a similar measure. That time, the Bering Sea pollock fleet was accused of recklessly wasting far too many high-value kings -- possibly at the expense of Yukon River villages that rely on kings for money and food.

Today, the scene has shifted, but some of the arguments remain the same.

Fishermen facing king salmon restrictions in Alaska say they're the ones who will pay the price for chinook wasted by the Gulf of Alaska pollock fleet.

Industry advocates, meanwhile, say the restrictions could cost the industry and coastal processors millions of dollars. But without a better idea of where these "bycatch" kings come from, they say, there isn't a clear benefit to struggling salmon stocks.

Both sides agree on one thing. The number of kings caught by trawlers last year in the Gulf of Alaska was unacceptable.

Vessels casting nets for Alaska pollock -- the low-cost whitefish found in countless frozen fish sticks and other products the world over -- caught the majority of the kings, or about 44,000.

That's more than twice the previous eight-year average, according to a council report.

Now the 11-member North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering placing a cap on the pollock fleet's king salmon bycatch to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The group, which weighs in on fishing rules in waters off Alaska, is debating annual bycatch limits ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 kings, as well as other options such as adding observers on smaller fishing vessels.

"There's no incentive whatever right now for a trawler, or the trawl fleet or the trawl industry to try to avoid king salmon," said Kip Thomet, commercial salmon fisherman in Kodiak and a member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Thomet's group prefers the bycatch cap option of just 15,000 kings a year or lower, which would fall below the annual average.

Anything else wouldn't go far enough to address the problem, "which is not enough king salmon making it up into the rivers," he said.

Julie Bonney, director of an advocacy group for pollock trawlers and processors called the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, says that's too low. A cap that small would have shortened the already fast-paced Gulf of Alaska season in five of the last eight years, she said.

"The goal would be to come up with cap that prevents what happened last fall, where the chinook salmon catch was unacceptable, but also allow us to continue to fully harvest the pollock quota," Bonney said.


To fishermen like Thomet, every king salmon counts as chinook escapement levels fall dangerously low in rivers like the 22-mile Karluk on the southwest end of Kodiak.

The river hasn't met escapement goals for kings since 2006. The Department of Fish and Game announced Wednesday that the Karluk would be restricted to catch-and-release only fishing for king salmon beginning June 1.

"We don't know how many of those king salmon that are caught by the trawl fleet. ... We don't know how many of those are going to the Karluk. But we know that some of them are," Thomet said.

Bonney said there's no way of knowing if king salmon bycatch in the Gulf is contributing to declines in rivers like the Karluk.

The salmon caught in trawl nets could be coming from elsewhere in Alaska, she said. From British Columbia. From the Pacific Northwest.

"In the Gulf of Alaska, there's a much higher probably that by-caught fish would be hatchery fish," Bonney said.

The limited information on origins of king salmon caught in the Gulf of Alaska show fish from Lower 48 stocks are present, including those listed under the Endangered Species Act, according to a report outlining the problem to the council.

While the direct benefits of bycatch limits are hazy without more research, the drawback to industry is clear to industry advocates like Bonney.

Say a limit of 15,000 king salmon was in place in 2005. It would have cost the central and western Gulf pollock fleet more than $10 million, according to a numbers Bonney cited in a fishery management council report.

Processors would have lost more than $30 million.

But the Alaska Marine Conservation Council argues those cost estimates are unfair. They don't account for efforts that trawlers would have made to avoid reaching the bycatch limit and putting an early end to the season.


The pollock fishery in the Gulf of Alaska if far smaller than the billion-dollar industry in the Bering Sea. The recommended allowable pollock catch for the Bering Sea in 2011 is about 1.25 million metric tons -- compared to just 96,000 tons for the Gulf.

The vessels in the Gulf are also smaller than the factory trawlers used to catch pollock in the Bering sea.

As a result, they take their catch to on-shore processors instead of processing the fish at sea, Bonney said. That means a pollock fishing vessel in the Gulf doesn't necessarily know how many salmon it has caught until processing, making it more difficult to avoid roving salmon hot spots.

The Bering Sea fleet also operates using quotas, meaning vessels are promised a given number of fish and -- as members of a cooperative -- can communicate to avoid hot spots and lower king salmon bycatch.

But the pollock fleet in the Gulf competes in a faster-paced, derby style of fishing that pits vessels against each other and could contribute to higher bycatch numbers.

The fisheries council is expected to vote on a preliminary preferred alternative for a Gulf of Alaska bycatch at this week's meeting, with a final decision in June.

The meeting continues through April 5 at the Hilton Hotel Downtown.

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