Two leading Alaska Native tribal organizations on Wednesday petitioned the federal government to dramatically lower the cap on the number of king salmon that Bering Sea commercial fishermen can harvest as bycatch in order to protect the fish.
The Association of Village Council Presidents and the Tanana Chiefs Conference filed their petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce secretary and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for an emergency cap they say is needed to avoid substantial harm to the kings, or chinook salmon, and to communities up and down the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, the two biggest in Alaska.
The tribal groups want the government to lower the hard cap on the accidental catch of kings during the lucrative Bering Sea pollock fishery from 60,000 to 20,000 for the rest of 2014. There's a lower bycatch number that triggers tighter monitoring, and the groups also want to see it dropped, from 47,591 to 15,000.
A "multi-year downward spiral" in king populations "present(s) a serious conservation and management problem requiring immediate emergency measures on the high seas as well as the river systems," the 11-page petition said. This year, directed subsistence fisheries for kings were completely closed on both the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.
If village residents who depend on salmon for survival can't catch kings, commercial fishing interests shouldn't be able to either, said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents.
A 20,000-king cap would only have been exceeded once in the last five years, so putting it in place won't unfairly restrict the Bering Sea fishermen, the petitioners argued.
Commercial fishing interests and fish managers respond that only a small percentage of the kings intercepted in Bering Sea nets are on their way to Western Alaska rivers.
Returns of kings into the Kuskokwim and Yukon systems combined peaked at about 600,000 salmon a year, then declined in recent years to the new low average of half that, or 300,000 kings a year, according to a 2013 report by the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative, an effort that includes the tribal organizations, state and federal governments and fishing interests.
The accidental catch only would have been a major factor if it were in the magnitude of 100,000 kings, the report said. Instead, it averaged 15,000 a year from 2008 through 2012 in the pollock fishery, and not all of those were headed to Alaska, the report said.
"Thus, this part of the domestic fishery cannot account for the striking decline in Chinook salmon abundance or even for a substantial proportion of the decline. Clearly, other sources of mortality must also have contributed to the decline," the 2013 research action plan said.
The high seas bycatch is targeted because it's a factor that people can control, said Dawson Hoover, communications manager for Coastal Villages Region Fund, a seafood operator that runs a processing plant and a commercial operation on the Kuskokwim River and has interest in fishing boats including ownership of a Bering Sea factory trawler. That catcher-processer, the Northern Hawk, generated $50 million in sales in 2012, revenue that subsidizes the money-losing Kuskokwim commercial fisheries to the tune of $3 million to $5 million a year, Hoover said, citing Coastal Villages' 2012 annual report.
"The whole point is to provide jobs and commercial fishing opportunities where people can earn money, where they may not be able to make any money elsewhere," Hoover said.
Still, in 2007 the accidental catch of kings topped out at more than 121,000 fish. Tribal groups don't want to risk a spike in bycatch in a year where village residents went without, Naneng said.
"Bycatch is not the only problem, but they should be part of the solution," Naneng said.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council next meets in October in Anchorage. Naneng says he hopes the petition seeking quick action is addressed. The council can't adopt emergency regulations but could recommend a course of action to the commerce secretary, said David Witherell, council deputy director.