The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved options for limiting the Bering Sea pollock fleet’s take of chum salmon during an October meeting that displayed the fault lines separating the pollock industry and Western Alaska tribal representatives.
The council motion approved Sunday calls for consideration of caps ranging from a low of 200,000 chum to as many as 550,000 annually that could be incidentally taken by trawl vessels targeting pollock. It will be sent out for study along with a broader set of alternatives.
The council will be required to select an alternative and take a vote by December 2024.
Many Western Alaska communities have been buffeted by weak returns of salmon that have brought a sense of crisis as some commercial fisheries have been shut down and subsistence fishing opportunities have been reduced or in some cases eliminated.
Their tribal representatives backed a proposal to study a much lower range of caps for the trawl fleet — from 0 to 280,000 chum annually. That amendment was rejected by a council advisory panel and did not make it into the final council motion.
During two days of testimony in Anchorage that preceded the council vote, Western Alaska tribal officials continued to advocate for tighter limits.
The Bering Sea chum caught by the pollock fleets were born in Asian and North American fresh water and migrate to the ocean to feed. Federal rules currently require that these salmon, once documented by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries observers, be discarded or donated to charity. They do not place limits on how many can be caught by trawlers.
During the past 12 years, the trawlers’ chum bycatch has fluctuated greatly, from a low of 22,172 in 2011 to a high of 545,901 in 2021. On average, about 18 percent of these salmon were from Western Alaska drainages, according to genetic analysis by NOAA Fisheries.
Federal and state scientists say the chum salmon declines appear to be largely driven by warmer water temperatures in recent years. But the village struggles have increased the pressure on the trawl fleet to reduce their chum bycatch as they pursue pollock in North America’s biggest ocean harvest.
“I am not trying to make it emotional. But it is emotional, especially when we hear from our elders or other community members from the tribal sector,” said Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson, government affairs policy director for the Arctic Yukon Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. When they’re unable to fish for chum or chinook, she said, “our heritage cannot be passed down to the next generations.”
Johnson serves on a council advisory panel that also includes fishing industry representatives. She proposed lower tribal limits but failed to gain support from other panel members. In testimony to the council, she criticized a “lack of equity and tribal representation in the council body.”
Pollock industry officials already face a hard cap restricting their take of chinook salmon. They say they are trying to avoid chum and fear that a hard cap might cause them in some years to be unable to catch their pollock allocations. They called for regulations that would enable them to develop incentives — and work through cooperatives — to focus on reducing their Western Alaska-bound chum bycatch. That option is included in the motion approved by the council.
In testimony, they spoke about the economic reach of the Bering Sea pollock industry in Alaska. Shore-based processing plants operate in the Aleutian Islands, and six Community Development Quota (CDQ) groups are allocated shares of the pollock harvest, and use their earnings to support 65 Western Alaska communities.
Frank Katchatag, a Unalakleet resident who chairs the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., said his CDQ group sent out $100,000 grants to 15 communities to help them recover from the remnants of Typhoon Merbook that struck Western Alaska in September 2022. He said the money went out quickly — within four days of the storm’s passing — and would not have been possible without the earnings from pollock.
“Pollock is now firmly a Western Alaskan industry,” said Katchag, who grew up fishing for salmon, in testimony to the council. “NSEDC is an economic powerhouse in our region and is often the first place people look for funding when needs arrive.”
Bill Tweit, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official who serves on the council, said bycatch reductions can help soften the impact of weak chum runs to Western Alaska but cannot reverse a trend rooted in a changing climate. He said the analysis of the alternatives should help clarify the impacts of possible council actions to hard-hit Western Alaska communities and the pollock industry.
“Sometimes this issue is described in stark terms as money versus culture,” Tweit said. “The council is not treating it that way because we understand that’s not what it is. It’s a far more complex issue.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Katchatag’s last name.
Journalist Hal Bernton has covered Alaska fisheries issues extensively. He was a longtime reporter for The Seattle Times, and previously reported for the Anchorage Daily News and The Oregonian. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.