Plans of McDonald's USA to promote wild caught Alaska pollock in its Filet-O-Fish and upcoming Fish McBites menu item are good news for the state's $1 billion pollock fishery.
The Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of six Community Development Quota programs established to boost the economy of Western Alaska, earned $50 million in 2012 alone on its pollock quota, says spokesman Dawson Hoover.
CVRF serves some 9,300 residents of 20 villages in Western Alaska, deriving the bulk of its income from the pollock harvest it receives as a CDQ group.
CVRF can put 135 people on board the Northern Hawk, its own pollock vessel, and overall has a payroll of $30 million annually, with some 1,100 employees overall, Hoover said. The organization's salmon and halibut commercial fisheries are subsidized by its pollock, crab and Pacific cod harvests, but mainly it's the pollock, he said.
This past year, CVRF caught 161 Chinook salmon as bycatch along with 88 million pounds of pollock, he said. Overall bycatch of salmon has been dramatically decreased over the years, he added. What salmon is caught as bycatch is donated to SeaShare, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that connects the seafood industry with the nation's network of food banks, and agreement was reached last year by all six CDQ groups to pay for shipping some of that donated fish back up to Alaska.
Most of the fish shipped back up north goes to the Food Bank of Alaska, which is then able to offer it to partner food banks all over the state, but the opportunity for them to shop at the Anchorage hub means they have to pay shipping costs to the partner agency.
Shipping is expensive, especially for perishables like seafood, and Food Bank of Alaska's Jason Lessard said because of that cost none of the bycatch salmon goes back out to Western Alaska food banks.
The food bank issue aside, Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents at Bethel, is angry at both McDonalds and the Marine Stewardship Council for saying the wild pollock fishery in Alaska is sustainable.
"It's not sustainable because it is taking away another sustainable fishery that has been in existence for ages, and making criminals out of people fishing for food, not for profit," Naneng said.
Subsistence fishing for king and chum salmon on the rivers of the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta is a tradition going back for generations, feeding people and also sled dogs. It is important to the culture as well as the subsistence economy of Yu'pik families.
Former Alaska legislator Nels Anderson, who is also a former executive with the Bristol Bay Native Corp., agrees with Naneng. Anderson sent an email to McDonald's and MSC in late January, saying that MSC and McDonalds are misleading the public by promoting wild Alaska pollock as a sustainable fishery "because the pollock catch extracts a very high price in waste of Bering Sea and Alaska marine resources.
"If the Marine Stewardship Council and McDonald's were to check with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and get their bycatch numbers of king salmon, chum salmon, other salmon species, marine mammals and birds, they would be shocked beyond measure and McDonald's should immediately cease and desist selling pollock under the MSC 'sustainable' label and MSC remove pollock from their list of 'sustainably' caught fish," he said.
Officials with both MSC and McDonald's responded, assuring Anderson that his comments would be shared with the appropriate people at that company.
Kerry Coughlin, America's regional director for MSC, said that MSC is really sympathetic with the low Chinook salmon runs in Western Alaska, "but there is no real scientific evidence that the pollock fishery is responsible for the decrease in those runs. The pollock fishery has taken some stringent measures to avoid bycatch. They have reduced bycatch to a low percentage," she said.
But fresh still in the memory of residents of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region are the recent years of high salmon bycatch. In 2006, the pollock fishery caught over 84,000 Chinook and 325,000 chum salmon as bycatch, many of which were bound for Western Alaska streams, noted Becca Robbins Gisclair of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, in a paper published by the American Fisheries Society in 2009. And in 2007, 121,909 Chinook salmon were caught as bycatch by the pollock fleet, and 94,072 chum salon were caught by the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands pollock fleet according to National Marine Fisheries Service estimates of salmon bycatch based on observer samples, Gisclair wrote.
"These salmon, had they returned to their natal river, could have fulfilled vital subsistence needs for people throughout Western Alaska, contributed to the local commercial salmon harvest which provides one of the few sources of income for rural communities, or ensured that escapement goals for spawning were met."
Neneng is considering efforts to start a boycott of McDonald's over its plans to market the pollock as sustainable, although, he said, he's not sure if the fast food giant corporation even knows that the Yu'pik people exist.
He is also angry at CVRF because, he said, last summer the CDQ group offered nets to meet new commercial fishing net size regulations to fish harvesters in exchange for signing a letter saying bycatch was not an issue in the lack of salmon in the rivers.
Meanwhile concern continues to mount statewide over the decline in the annual returns of Chinook salmon, a species important culturally to Alaska, as well as to the commercial and sport fish industries.
In a recent presentation to the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, Edward Farley of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, addressed concerns over the sharp decline in Chinook salmon returns to Alaska's rivers. According to Farley, scientists hypothesize that the recent synchronous decline in these Chinook returns is largely due to factors impacting their survival in the marine environment. To many residents of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, bycatch is still a factor.