Fishery council votes to study tighter limit on Bering Sea pollock fleet’s chum salmon bycatch

After a marathon of testimony dominated by Western Alaskans’ anguish over declining salmon runs, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted this week to consider tighter restrictions on chum salmon accidentally taken by Bering Sea pollock trawlers.

Under one council alternative, the pollock fleet’s summer harvest season could be shut down if as few as 100,000 chum were brought up in nets. That is an annual chum bycatch tally that the pollock fleet has most often exceeded in recent years. But it’s still well above the 22,000 chum limit that a council advisory panel — with support from tribes — sought to include as a possible cap.

“It’s a tough call, and hence the balance,” said Rachel Baker, a state Department of Fish and Game official who serves on the federal council and crafted the motion. “It’s so clear, with this rule, you are directly affecting people’s lives. And that’s a huge responsibility.”

The motion approved by the council Monday revises an earlier range of options approved back in October that called for chum caps ranging from a minimum of 200,000 chum to as many as 550,000 annually, angering tribes who felt that their recommendations for a lower limit had been ignored.

[Western Alaska tribes, outraged by bycatch, turn up the heat on fishery managers and trawlers]

The Monday action, which still includes 550,000 chum as the highest potential cap, will be sent to council staff for impact studies. Then, at a future meeting, the council’s voting members will select a preferred alternative.

Pollock, which is made into frozen fillets, surimi paste and other products, is the biggest-volume fishery in North America. It is pursued by a fleet of trawlers, some of which include below-deck factories and others that deliver to shore-based or floating processors in a harvest that last year tallied more than 2 billion pounds.


Most of the pollock fleet is based in Seattle, though their catch supports processing plant jobs and tax revenue in Alaska. And nonprofits representing Western Alaska communities within 50 miles of the Bering Sea control catch shares to more than 35% of this pollock harvest, and spin off financial benefits to residents.

Scientists cite maritime heat waves, which are forecast to intensify amid climate change, as contributing to the decline of the chum as well as chinook runs. Grappling with big restrictions on their own harvests, Western Alaska residents are incensed by the trawl fleet’s bycatch of chum salmon, and demanded that it be curbed to help restore beleaguered runs.

In the Bering Sea, during the summer months, chum often intermingle with huge schools of pollock. Currently the trawl fleet has no restrictions on the total number they can collectively catch, though they try to avoid these salmon.

[A struggle to dodge salmon in pursuit of a massive pollock bounty]

During the 2023 season, the fleet scooped up 111,698 chum, all of which — once documented by federally contracted observers — were required to be discarded or donated to charity. Genetic analysis by federal fishery scientists indicated that more than half of these fish originated from northeast Asia, where Russia has greatly expanded hatchery operations. An estimated 8.3% — or 9,246 fish — were from Western Alaska drainages, including the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, according to the analysis submitted to the federal fishery council.

The pollock fleet’s chum take has had huge annual fluctuations, ranging during the past 13 years from a low of 22,172 in 2011 to a high of 545,901 in 2021. On average, some 15.4% of the chum catch by the trawl fleets has been of Western Alaska origin, according to the estimates developed through the federal genetic analysis of a sampling of these fish.

The fishery council that’s considering restrictions on the fleet’s chum catch is a mix of federal, state, industry and other appointed representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon. The council is charged under federal law with developing harvest rules for the 200-mile offshore zone of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska — a process typically strung out over many months of meetings.

Council actions, once finalized, then go through a federal review, and then are enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Within the past few years, tribal organizations have sought to dramatically increase Western Alaska participation in a council public comment process long dominated by the fishing industry.

Prior to the Monday vote, 100 people signed up to testify while others submitted written remarks. Many Western Alaskans offered emotional, at times tearful, accounts of the wrenching cultural impacts from the long-term collapse in chinook salmon runs along with the more recent declines in chum salmon returns.

Both fish are staple subsistence species in a region cut off from Alaska’s road system where store-bought groceries command steep prices.

“The last time that I fished on the Yukon River was 2017. We took 25 salmon to feed two families with grandchildren, children and us as grandparents,” said Theresa Clark, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. “We felt really guilty taking that salmon because we already knew that salmon was … going away.”

There had been friction in past council meetings, with some tribal representatives rankled by a lack of respect shown to some of the Native leaders who testified. During this meeting, council members often praised the tribal testimony, and some elders were able to testify well beyond their allotted time slots.

“The encouraging thing is that there appears to be more room for communication between industry, tribal representatives, council members and council staff that can make meetings more productive,” said Eva Burk, a Nenana Native Council member who in January was appointed to the fishery council’s advisory panel.

Baker, the Alaska Fish and Game representative on the council, agreed. One criticism made by tribal advocates that resonated with her, she added, was about the limited scope of the council process — how it’s economically driven and only has jurisdiction over federal waters.

“Some of us on the council are finally starting to understand: The holistic view in Alaska Native culture is not how the system is set up,” she said. “But it is the system that we have, and that we have to work within.”

Along with the lower chum salmon cap option, the council also came up with other changes to the initial set of alternatives approved in October. They included a proposal to establish — from June 10 to Aug. 31 — a Bering Sea chum corridor in areas where higher concentrations of Western Alaska-bound salmon have been caught in years past. The corridor could have a separate cap set at below 100,000, and if reached would be placed off limits to the trawl fleet for the rest of the summer season.


There also are hopes that technological advances could eventually help reduce the pollock fleet’s take of Western Alaska salmon. The fishery council heard testimony about a plan that would speed up the genetic testing of fish to determine in days — rather than months later — the origins of the chum salmon brought aboard trawlers. Efforts also are underway to develop a system that would enable skippers to release fish through a kind of escape hatch when underwater cameras indicate that chum salmon are swimming into a net.

Hal Bernton is a reporter who 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 Nathaniel Herz of the Northern Journal contributed reporting.