As tribal leaders, we urge collective action for Western Alaska salmon now

This past summer, fish racks, smokehouses and fish camps across the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and Norton Sound region in the western part of our state stood empty. Chinook and chum salmon are critical to the lifeblood of our nearly 100 regional tribal communities and are central to our cultures. However, they did not return this year throughout much of our regions. Our people are now facing a winter without this essential food source and missing an essential part of our traditions and way of life.

While tribes along our rivers were not allowed to harvest a single salmon or were severely restricted in their harvests last summer, the largely out-of-state industrial Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet is allowed to catch vast quantities of salmon as bycatch. In 2021 alone, 12,000 Chinook salmon and over 500,000 chum salmon thus far have been caught as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. Wasting is not acceptable according to our cultural values, which guide us to take only what we need and use everything we take. This level of bycatch – viewed by the industry as discarded salmon – is disrespectful and should not be allowed.

Tribes and communities have been doing our part to help protect and restore our salmon runs by foregoing our subsistence harvests, engaging in research, and testifying about our experiences amid this salmon collapse. Earlier this month, we called on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to do their part by reducing this bycatch to zero for 2022 and taking strong steps towards a long-term solution to eliminate salmon bycatch and restore salmon runs to abundance.

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

While the Council committed to some longer-term action, they did not heed our call to recognize that subsistence fishing families in western Alaska deserve to harvest the fish we have been catching, cutting, and sharing for at least 12,000 years. Their failure to eliminate the pollock trawl fleet’s salmon bycatch considerably in 2022 disappoints us as it proves industrial fishing is favored over our subsistence ways of life.

Furthermore, the State of Alaska has a majority on the Council, and the ability to make decisions that are in the best interest of the state and our people. The decisions of the state through the Council directly impact our lives as fishermen, yet our 229 federally recognized tribes have no vote in its processes.

The Council’s (in)actions make it abundantly clear that change is needed to the laws governing our federal fisheries, especially the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Rep. Huffman (D-CA) has introduced a bill to reauthorize the MSA which includes two voting tribal seats and strengthens the requirement to reduce bycatch. The time is long overdue for tribes to have seats at the decision-making table, as they do in the parallel Council in the Pacific Northwest.

We all share a common goal of restoring our salmon runs. We need the State of Alaska and federal leaders, including the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Commerce, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), and Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), to eliminate salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea, ensure tribal leadership and decision-making in these processes, and fund salmon restoration programs and tribal co-management and research endeavors.

Our tribes would rather be fully immersed in our subsistence way of life, harvesting abundant chinook and chum salmon with our families, than participating in management systems that are failing us. Yet as it becomes clear that our Bering Sea ecosystem and salmon populations are collapsing around us, it is vital tribes no longer be left out of management decisions that have the power to help — or continue harming — our ways of life.

Our fish racks, smokehouses and fish camps remain empty. The trawl fleet continues catching and wasting salmon. The Council may not have acted, but our work to restore abundant salmon populations and continue practicing our ways of life is far from over. The well-being of our descendants rests on our collective action now.

Mary Peltola is the Executive Director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents 33 tribes along the Kuskokwim River.

Brooke Woods is the Executive Chair of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents 28 tribes along the Yukon River.

Melanie Bahnke is the President of Kawerak, a tribal consortium representing 20 tribes in the Bering Strait Region of Alaska.

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