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Late-running chum salmon cause problems for Bering Sea pollock fleet

Jill Homer
NOAA / Kris Cieciel

After a relatively light year for chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea, numbers are back up this season as the pollock fleet clears out of “hot spots” in order to avoid compromising the fishery.

As of July 7, more than 18,000 non-chinook salmon were taken in the Bering Sea fishery, compared to 2,700 over the same period in 2012. The early numbers are comparable to 2011’s high bycatch rate, when 188,000 non-chinook salmon were taken over the B season, compared to 23,000 in 2012. Chum salmon comprise more than 99 percent of the bycatch in this category.

Commercial and subsistence salmon fishermen in Western Alaska often blame the pollock fleet when salmon harvests decline. The controversial issue has led to a tighter management plan to protect Chinook salmon, including a catch share program, use of chinook salmon excluders in fishing nets, and implementation of rolling hot spot closures. Under this program, data from fishing vessels identify areas experiencing a temporary increase in salmon abundance, mark these areas as a “hot spot,” and require the fleet to move out of the area.

There is a hard cap on the chinook bycatch; if trawlers take more than 60,000 salmon, the entire fishery is closed. Although there is currently no hard cap on chum salmon bycatch, the fleet is complying with closures based on hot spot analysis. 

About 500 square miles of fishing grounds have been closed down to avoid chum salmon hot spots. The closure of fishing grounds can slow pollock harvests, requiring fleets to remain in the water later in the season when pollock fishing is generally slower, which can cut into profits. United Catcher Boats, representing a fleet of more than 70 pollock vessels delivering to shore plants and motherships, is relying on the rolling hot spots program to avoid further bycatch.

Brent Pain, executive director of United Catcher Boats, said that the higher bycatch numbers this year are not surprising.

“Comparing rates and amounts of salmon taken for the 2013 Bering Sea pollock fishery vs. the 2012 pollock fishery, for Chinook the fleet is experiencing about the same amount of Chinook bycatch,” Pain said. “For chum salmon bycatch the fleet ended the 2012 season with about 22,000 chum in the B season and harvested about 710,000 metric tons of pollock during the B season, for a rate of 0.031 chum per metric ton of pollock.  For the 2011 B season, the chum bycatch amount was quite a bit higher than the 2012 B season amount and rate.”

“It is a little early in the season to evaluate whether or not measures taken to reduce salmon bycatch have fallen short or not,” said Krista Milani, a resource management specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “The fleet is currently working with Sea State Inc. to avoid chum salmon bycatch under the Incentive Plan Agreement. Sea State is closely monitoring the fishery and expanding the rolling hot spot closures in areas of high salmon rates.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering new measures to manage non-Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea. Currently, the fleet is exempt from a hard cap on chum salmon bycatch provided it participates in a similar rolling hot spot program. The alternatives under consideration include new time and area closures, hard caps, and more rolling hot spot regulations.

According to a December 2012 council motion, “It is clear from the analysis thus far that measures considered to reduce bycatch of Alaska origin chum have a high likelihood of undermining the Council’s previous actions to protect Chinook salmon.” The council is asking each sector of the fleet to provide a proposal detailing how they would incorporate a  salmon program as it continues to review bycatch measures.

The 2013 allocation for Bering Sea pollock is 1.247 million metric tons, compared to 1.2 million in 2012. As of July 6, the fleet had harvested 219,000 metric tons, compared to 214,000 in 2012. The pollock fishery in the Bering Sea has an annual value of about $1 billion according to United Catcher Boats. Last year, the  fleet harvested 99.6 percent of their quota by Nov. 1.

Although rolling hot spot closures could cut into the fleet’s bottom line, it’s too early to tell how a potentially high chum salmon bycatch will affect the harvest numbers.

“Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to predict how the season will unfold for salmon bycatch,” Milani said. “Historically, salmon bycatch has been highly variable from one year to the next.”

Republished with permission from The Bristol Bay Times.