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Save the kings; ban factory trawlers

Alan Boraas

On July 20 I stood on the bluff at Erik Hansen Park and looked down at a temporary city of maybe a thousand pickup campers lining both sides of the mouth of the Kenai River.

Dipnetters had swelled the city's population and were joyously scooping up red salmon 24 hours a day. Out in the Inlet, the commercial drift fleet was also having a good year catching reds.

While reds are abundant this year, king salmon are scarce. For the first time in history, the second run of Kenai kings has been closed to sport fishing. Near me, small groups of trophy king salmon fishers grimly surveyed the scene below.

The river closure also shut down the east-side setnetters who, like the drift fishers, target red salmon but incidentally catch kings because the fish tend to follow the shoreline. Consequently, that same day a few blocks away, about 200 setnetters were holding a rally to vent their frustration at being forced to sacrifice their season to put the remaining kings upriver to spawn.

The disparity between red and king salmon fishing was stark.

Cook Inlet isn't the only place with disappearing kings. Dismal escapements are occurring in the Kuskokwim and Yukon drainages, where kings are in rapid decline, which is devastating for subsistence fishing.

A number of reasons for the ravaged king populations have been offered, including in-river habitat deterioration and "Pacific Decadal Oscillations," ocean changes that push fish nutrients farther from Alaska. But for the primary reason for the decline of the mighty king, we need look no further than McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, Carl's Jr., Dairy Queen and other fast-food restaurants that serve fish burgers. They are the root cause of the demise of the kings.

The fish for this cheap food comes from Alaska pollock caught in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. The pollock fishery is the United States' largest finfish fishery and is said to be the last remaining wild open-ocean fishery now that cod, tuna and herring have been substantially overfished.

Since the 1980s, pollock have been caught primarily by corporate-owned factory trawlers -- some setting out nets more than a mile long from ships the size of football fields.

The freezer-trawlers can stay at sea for half a year catching, processing and freezing an average of 36 metric tons of pollock per ship for the fast-food industry. There is also a much smaller Alaska shore-based pollock processing industry with a fleet of boats in the 60-foot range.

Unfortunately, king salmon feed on pollock and the factory trawlers catch king salmon as bycatch. Bycatch, such a harmless sounding word. But the king salmon bycatch is not harmless at all -- it's ecological genocide.

According to Becca Robbins Gisclair of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, kings may be trapped in pollock nets for as long as four hours. Once on ship, the Bering Sea kings have to be retained until an observer can count them; then they are discarded (some are donated to food banks). According to the 2011 Gulf of Alaska Chinook Salmon Bycatch Environmental Assessment, 100 percent of the bycatch salmon die.

In 2010, 51,000 kings were caught as bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery. In 2007, 129,000 kings were killed in the Bering Sea as bycatch by the pollock trawlers. That number dropped substantially to 12,500 in 2010. Maybe the industry is monitoring itself better. Or maybe the damage has already been done. Maybe 30 years of factory trawler bycatch has taken its toll on the kings.

In 1997, Sen. Ted Stevens introduced a bill to ban factory trawlers from U.S. waters. If it had passed, the bill would have forced all processing on shore and smaller boats would have been more easily regulated for king bycatch, as they are today. Naturally, the Seattle-based factory trawler corporations fought back, and naturally, they won.

Had Stevens prevailed, king populations would likely not be in jeopardy today.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is trying to deal with king salmon bycatch but powerful industry forces are seeking to maintain the status quo. Alaskans should weigh in on the side of the kings and, in the spirit of Sen. Stevens, renew the fight to ban factory processing ships from U.S. waters. The goal should be no less than zero king salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery.

Alan Boraas, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.