Federal regulators have proposed slapping a cap on the number of king salmon that pollock trawlers can accidently kill in the Gulf of Alaska in an effort to help a limping Southcentral sport and subsistence fishery.
The proposed limit of 22,500 is less than half of last year's bycatch of 51,000 kings but more than the eight-year average of 19,000 taken by commercial pollock fishermen pursuing the low-cost whitefish that end up as frozen fish sticks in freezers across America.
How many kings is 51,000? That's more than three-quarters of the total number of kings that made it past sonar counters in the big Kenai River run last year.
However, biologists aren't sure where the kings caught by Gulf of Alaska pollock fishermen are headed, though genetic sampling will be ramped up this season in an effort to answer that question. It may, however, take as long as five years to reach a conclusion.
The proposed cap -- known as the preliminary preferred alternative -- is the mid-range number considered by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its meeting in Anchorage. The smallest cap was 15,000 kings; the largest was twice that.
Final action is due at the council's June meeting in Nome.
"We applaud the council for taking this step toward limiting chinook bycatch, especially at a time when king salmon returns are so low," said Theresa Peterson, a 30-year commercial fisherman and member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Dismal king returns have afflicted several Kodiak sport fisheries for years. Before this season even opens, Fish and Game managers clamped down on two premier Kodiak fisheries.
Fishing for kings on the 22-mile Karluk on the southwest end of Kodiak will be catch and release only. And at the Ayakulik River, the bag and possession limit will be one fish, with a season-long limit of two.
Both fisheries, which were closed last year, are struggling to rebound from years of dreadful king returns. Not since 2006 has the Karluk seen the minimum number of kings biologists aim for to protect future runs. The Ayakulik has come up short since 2007.
The Anchor River just north of Homer has also missed its minimum escapement goal the past two years.
"By and large, the majority of the comments I've received is that it's time we did something," said Duncan Fields of Kodiak, one of the six Alaskans on the council. "You can't take large numbers of a species like chinook without any consequences.
"Chinook are very important to lots of people, and not just economically. There's a vibrant sport fishery and in the Native community, chinook has been an important source of subsistence food for a long period of time."
On the other hand, Fields noted there is "grave concern" in the trawl fleet that commercial boats won't be able to catch all of the pollock allowed them some years because the king bycatch is too high.
Pollock fishing in the Gulf of Alaska is 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. 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.
"What happened last year won't happen again, and that's a good thing," said fishing charter captain Pete Wedin, a member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "We'll get better data, too. Having better observing will make a big difference."
Wedin was referring to the council's motion to use fishery observers on small boats under 60 feet; currently they are only on 30 percent of the boats between 60 to 125 feet.
The 11-member North Pacific Fishery Management Council crafts fishing rules in waters off Alaska. In addition to the six Alaskans on the council, there are three voting members from Washington, one from Oregon and one federal representative.
If approved in Nome, the change won't go into effect until the 2012 season.
"Lot of us were outraged (by last year's bycatch)," Wedin said of advocates of a lower cap. "It isn't a fast track -- we've been asking for this for 20 years. I've always been outraged by waste, and I welcome any idea (commercial fishermen) have to eliminate the waste."
Past efforts to reign in the Bering Sea king bycatch give Fields encouragement.
"The fleet responded well before the regulations were implemented," he said. "Behavior patterns changed. Since we began talking about it in the Bering Sea, bycatch has been substantially reduced."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL