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Alaska king salmon dilemma that played out in Bethel defies easy solutions

More than a few people in the windswept, far Western corner of Alaska wanted the trials last week of Kuskokwim River fishermen to be a moratorium on the bycatch of Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea. Loren Holmes photo

BETHEL -- More than a few people out here in the windswept, far Western corner of the state wanted the trials last week of Kuskokwim River fishermen to be a moratorium on the bycatch of Chinook salmon even farther west in the Bering Sea.

There is no arguing the fact that some Kuskokwim kings, as they are often called in Alaska, end up dead in the nets of the $1 billion dollar trawl fishery that operates far away and out of sight over the horizon. The $1 billion question is how many.

Myron Naneng is president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a political power in this region. The way he sees it, "the trawlers and managers of salmon have tried to minimize the impacts by saying only a certain percentage goes into this river or this stream.

"(But) since about 68 percent of their Chinook salmon are bound for the river systems in Western Alaska, why can't the bycatch -- if it numbers 50,000 or even 20,000 -- be reduced by 68 percent to allow for salmon to return to the river systems?

"Kuskokwim River is not the only river that is of a concern. Yukon River, Unalakleet (River) are having issues, too.  We are not only looking at one river. But, the trials have brought forward this picture that no one was even considering to look at. 

"Otherwise, as it is the standard operating procedure of the state of Alaska, let the river systems users continue to bear the burden of conservation."

Managing mixed salmon stocks tough 

With the latter statement as to the SOP of Alaska, there is no doubt. Dipnetters on the Copper River, Kenai king salmon anglers on the Kenai River, silver fishermen in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and even state fisheries biologists, can agree with Naneng.

Managing commercial salmon catches in Alaska’s mixed-stock fisheries is not an easy job. The fish aren't very cooperative. They get all mixed together, and sometimes it's hard to catch the plentiful species without catching some of the less-plentiful species.

When too many of the latter get caught in the commercial fisheries which almost all of which target mixed stocks offshore in Alaska, the only option left to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is to implement in-river restrictions to ensure enough fish escape fishermen to spawn and maintain future salmon runs.

This is exactly what happened on the Kuskokwim River last June. Subsistence fishermen there, who had access to plenty of red and chum salmon but prefer kings, decided they'd make an issue of it. There was a revolt against the regulations.

Dozens of fishermen end up cited. Some just paid their fines and went home. More than two dozen decided to challenge the citations as a violation of their "religious right" to fish. That's what the trails in Bethel were about last week.

Acting District Court Judge Bruce Ward ruled that they might have a religious right, but the rights of some fish to survive long enough to spawn trump it. It was the first ruling in a legal process everyone expects will play out over the next year or two. Ward found everyone guilty.

The fishermen are appealing. They believe they are being treated unfairly.

And they are. Life is often unfair. It certainly wasn't fair when east-side Cook Inlet setnetters sat on the beach all last summer to protect a handful of Kenai kings while millions of red salmon swam past. The setnetters have yet to figure away to catch the reds without catching kings.

Granted, they haven't tried very hard either. Maybe they should have. They were shutdown last summer because their by-catch of a paltry few hundred kings was considered a threat to the Kenai fish.

Alaska fisheries are like this. People suffer so the fish can survive. Usually, in-river fishermen pay the price of conservation, as Naneng notes. But as those Cook Inlet setnetters demonstrate, this isn't always the case.

All of which brings us back to that bycatch in the trawl fleet.

Progress on the bycatch 

Trawlers are not trying to catch Chinooks. In fact, there is little doubt that they would be happy if they could get the bycatch down to zero. For them, bycatch is a giant, political headache. They make no money off bycatch fish. By law, they are banned from selling these fish that the advocates for subsistence and sport fishing regularly use to beat them about the head. And they’ve made progress reducing the bycatch.

Alhough the bycatch cap for the Bering Sea trawl fishery is 60,000 kings, the five-year average for that catch is closer to 16,000. Since 2008, the catch has only exceeded 25,000 once. After a political storm in 2007 when the by-catch hit a record of almost 122,000, the fishery appears to have tried to clean up its act.

The trawlers are down to an average of .04 Chinook per trawl. Ideally, it would be zero, but is that practical? The total catch last year was 11,352. Even if half of those fish had been Kusko fish and even if all of that half had made it back to the Kusko last year as mature salmon -- two very big ifs -- 5,676 wouldn't have made much difference in the way the in-river fishery was managed.

But Naneng isn’t convinced.

"They (trawlers) still have a by catch limit that can allow them to bycatch up to 60,000 without any immediate penalties like those that were imposed on unemployed subsistence fishers.  Trawlers have more money to attend regulatory committee meetings than those in villages,'' Naneng said.

"Big money, as usual, wins at the expense of resources.  We have even the state law to allow for sustainable fisheries. (But) Norton Sound no longer fishes for chums now. No more Chinook salmon fishing on the Yukon River, since 2007. The high reported bycatch each year by trawl fleet, and yet each boat was not monitored. 

"So, we have made suggestions. Yet, the big, financially stronger, groups have bought the management system. And most of the time, the commercial or trawl fleets say that there is not enough science to support (cutbacks)."

Is North Pacific Council protecting trawlers? 

The trawl fleet is a big business. There is no doubt about that.

And some would say they have way too much pull with North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the federal agency that regulates the big fisheries far off Alaska's coast. A good argument can be made, in fact, that the Council is just basically corrupt.

As the North Pacific Council has clearly demonstrated the past two years, it operates not to maximize the value of the fish caught off Alaska's coast or to protect the subsistence needs of rural Alaska villagers, but to preserve the existing commercial fisheries that support it.

But here's where things get really complicated. There is a reason for those trawl fisheries to exist.

That $1 billion dollar Bering Sea pollock fishery each year produces 2.4 billion pounds of high-quality protein on a sustainable basis for the world. That's 2.4 billion with a "B.''

Forget the jobs trawl fisheries support. Forget the money trawl fisheries have delivered to coastal Alaska through the hugely socialist community-development-quota (CDQ) system that put some in Alaska, including Western Alaska, in the business of state capitalism not all unlike that in China. And think about the volume of food involved.

Reasonable trade-off? 

Even if all 60,000 of the bycatch salmon were Kusko kings -- and nearly everybody thinks only a fraction of those fish were headed for the Kusko -- should the rest of the world give up 2.4 billion pounds of high-quality protein to put another 60,000 kings in the Kusko?

Should the rest of the world do that to feed people who could eat red or chum salmon, of which there are many, but simply prefer kings? Put in those terms, the people of this region, who caught more than 50,000 kings last year, sound downright selfish.

They're not. They're some of the kindest, most generous people in the world, but they are angry and resentful because they feel their entire way of life is under attack. And it is. It has been for a long time. The tools and the tool making that once defined the culture are largely gone.

Nobody makes a net from local materials anymore. Nobody goes upriver in the fall to kill a moose, skin it, and build a moose-hide boat to float the meat home. The men don't live in qasgiqs anymore, the women and children in enas, though there is at least one resident of this community pushing for a return to similar, fuel-efficient, in-the-ground structures because of the high costs of heating.

He isn't gaining much traction. People want to live above ground in Western-style homes with windows. They want to drive snowmachines and four-wheelers and type on computers and talk on cell phones.

Technology boom in rural Alaska 

Western technology has swept over rural Alaska like a tsunami. It has left the people in rural areas clinging fearfully to what little they have left of the old ways. The Chinook subsistence fishery on the Kusko, bastardized though it now is with monofilament nets and aluminum skiffs powered by the latest, high-tech outboards, is one of those things.

Naneng speaks with the resentment of many when he says "the SOA, ADF&G, (state of Alaska, Alaska Department of Fish and Game) in their forecasts nor any public comments will not say that our rivers are being impacted by the trawl fleets and bycatch.  Are biologists for ADF&G on gag order to not say that bycatch is part of the problem?

"This in essence is placing the burden of conservation on in-river fishers and is destroying a culture, tradition and an economy.  If we closed your food source, such as a grocery store, I am sure you would not take that nicely."

No, but how would you take it if the products in your grocery store were restricted so that tens of thousands of others would have something to eat?

This is not a simple picture. It's a pretty damn complicated one.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com