Business/Economy

Trawler bycatch debate heats up after Alaska records dismal 2021 chinook salmon returns

Fishermen are calling for state and federal fisheries managers to make changes to salmon bycatch limits for trawlers as chinook salmon numbers plummet across Alaska.

Chinook salmon returns were dismal virtually everywhere in Alaska this year, from Southeast to the Bering Sea, with few exceptions. That follows a trend, as abundance has declined over roughly the last decade. Commercial fishermen have lost most of their opportunity to harvest kings, and sport fisheries have been restricted. Now subsistence fisheries are being reined in to help preserve the runs.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is debating changes in its meeting this month. Trawlers, which use weighted nets to drag either along the bottom or in midwater, are permitted a certain amount of bycatch as they fish for their target species, the largest of which is pollock. Bycatch is always a heated issue, but it is especially so now.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game informed the council in a letter dated Sept. 23 that three index species that it uses to track king salmon runs in the Bering Sea — the Unalakleet, Yukon, and Kuskokwim rivers — didn’t reach a threshold necessary to maintain the current bycatch allowances. That threshold is set at 250,000 fish between the three rivers; this year, there were 165,148.

The Kuskokwim’s run came within its forecasted range, but the other two fell short.

The shortfall in salmon this year hit fishing communities hard, particularly among subsistence fishermen. Amos T. Philemenoff Sr., president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, wrote to the board that the salmon shortages in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region this year have affected the island’s subsistence traditions. Donations of salmon from commercial harvesters to replace the lost food do not replace the traditions, he said.

“Our communities have experienced physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual hardship due to the impacts of over-harvest and mismanagement that characterize these Alaska fisheries,” he wrote. “The burden of conservation has fallen on Indigenous (e.g., subsistence) users who are not part of the salmon population collapse.”

[‘We’ve never seen this before’: Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives]

Philemenoff said the island community has been bringing up concerns about the Bering Sea ecosystem for years and pointed to a combination of factors, including trawl over-exploitation of the fishery resources and climate change. Sea ice has become increasingly rare, not surrounding St. Paul Island since 2011 and 2012, and seabird die-offs have become increasingly common in the region.

“The population declines of northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, Pribilof Islands blue king crab, and Pacific halibut, to name a few, have been devastating to the livelihoods, wellbeing, and future of our tribal and community members,” he said. “We have carried these concerns to this Council for years, decades.”

[Alaska snow crab harvest slashed by nearly 90% after population crash in a warming Bering Sea]

He requested that the council drop salmon bycatch allowances to zero for the 2022 Bering Sea pollock fishery, that it seek federal disaster aid and research funding and that the council seek tribal consultation on salmon bycatch and management.

The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission asked for the same measures in its letter, noting that because of the lack of information on the reason for the salmon collapse, “sustainable fishery management requires that the Council limit salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery to ensure that NO salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in 2022.”

Kawerak, Inc., the Ocean Conservancy, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association and the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association submitted the same requests.

Several commenters are asking for similarly tough actions on the Bering Sea pollock fishery, but others are noting that significant cuts could also heavily impact Native coastal communities because they hold interest in that fishery through their CDQ groups. Fishermen with the Coastal Villages Region Fund, which represents the villages around the Kuskokwim River Delta and surrounding areas, caught about 102 million pounds of pollock in 2019, according to CVRF’s annual report from that year.

Others are asking for changes to the bycatch management in the trawl fisheries. A letter from the Salmon Habitat Information Partnership program signed by 300 commercial fishermen asks the council to reconsider a decision it made regarding apportionment of chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries.

In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service published a rule moving 1,350 chinook from the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery to the non-rockfish program catcher vessel sector in the Gulf.

Those 1,350 chinook are a projected unused part of the prohibited species catch limit — essentially, some that the pollock fleet didn’t catch that they were allowed. The fishermen in the letter, from everywhere from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor, protested this move, saying the fish should be left in the Gulf rather than be allowed to be caught by another sector as bycatch.

“Alaskans are making huge sacrifices to protect chinook; the federal government via the NPFMC needs to do the same,” the letter states. “Chinook bycatch being rolled over to another trawl sector to kill and discard is unconscionable when many Alaskans are foregoing subsistence, sport and commercial harvest.”

[Report highlights how Bristol Bay locals are losing access to commercial fisheries]

Salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, from Southeast to Bristol Bay, saw restrictions this year due to low king salmon runs. In Bristol Bay, early-season commercial fishing in the Nushagak District was restricted because of the slow king salmon return there. In Cook Inlet, setnetters were shut down completely in mid-July because of a poor king salmon run, along with a complete sportfishery closure for the Kenai River king salmon. In Southeast, sport anglers were restricted starting in June to protect the kings returning to the rivers there. In the letter, the fishermen argue that the rollover policy needs to be reversed while the council takes more long-term action to address king salmon bycatch in the trawl fisheries in the Gulf.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting this week via Zoom. The link to the meetings can be found on its website at npfmc.org.

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