If we were a school of chum salmon heading home to Western Alaska to spawn this summer, we would be amazed at our own survival.
To survive and spawn, we would have overcome alarming heat waves in 2019 as we left our freshwater redds and started rearing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. We would have searched long and hard for nutrition to provide the energy we needed to start our migration homeward, and we would have competed against hatchery fish from Japan, Russia and other countries to find the best food to fill our stomachs.
And, of course, we would have dodged net after net that was drifted and trawled along our migratory pathway through the Alaska Peninsula and Eastern Bering Sea before returning to our natal streams.
But we are not chum salmon; we are Tribal citizens appointed to represent Western Alaska subsistence communities on the Salmon Bycatch Committee, created and overseen by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Concerned for the survival of chum salmon and all salmon species that nourish our bodies, souls and communities in the wake of unprecedented climate and ecosystem changes, we are asking that we focus on what we can control to foster Western Alaska salmon survival: those of our fisheries.
Subsistence and commercial fisheries throughout Western Alaska have been shuttered in recent years. With record-low escapements and few (if any) opportunities for Indigenous and rural fishing families to harvest salmon, there is nothing more that our communities can sacrifice to protect these vulnerable fish.
Meanwhile, in 2022, the chum salmon bycatch in the Eastern Bering Sea pollock fishery -- meaning chums unintentionally harvested while targeting pollock -- topped 242,000 fish. Preliminary genetic analyses of this bycatch suggest that despite the rise in Asian origin hatchery fish in the North Pacific, roughly 21% of these chums were from, and could have eventually spawned, in Western Alaska. This mirrors genetic analyses conducted between 2011 and 2020, showing that Western Alaska chum consistently compose a significant amount of chum salmon bycatch over time.
Twenty-one percent is about one in five fish. At a time when Yukon, Kuskokwim and other Western Alaska chum stocks are at all-time lows, one in five chum salmon is awfully high.
There is much more that could and must be done to reduce this waste of Western Alaska chum stocks and meet our communities’ food security and cultural needs.
For example, instead of focusing on SeaShare’s salmon distribution boxes -- which do not reach all of our villages nor get our families back to our fish camps -- we could work toward meaningful, ecosystem-based approaches to restoring salmon stocks and, with them, rural Alaska food security.
Our governor had (and did not take) an opportunity to nominate an Alaska Native citizen to the Council. This is one step toward equitably including our Indigenous subsistence perspective on this decision-making body at a time when our knowledge and experience with salmon is direly needed.
Most importantly, at its early April meeting, the Council could choose to push forward regulatory measures, especially a cap, to limit chum salmon bycatch by the pollock fleet, instead of leaving it to the fleet itself to determine non-regulatory (and often voluntary) chum avoidance actions, as has been the policy thus far.
The Council and industry must recognize their responsibility to protect subsistence salmon and salmon fisheries by limiting Western Alaska chum bycatch, and act now to do so. We need to focus on what we can do now to protect, restore and sustain our salmon and our communities; it’s our survival on the line.
Serena Fitka grew up in Saint Mary’s and is the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.
Jennifer Hooper lives in Bethel and is the natural resources manager for the Association of Village Council Presidents.
Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson is a Tribal citizen of Nome Eskimo Community and works with the AYK Tribal Consortium.
Kevin Whitworth is a Tribal citizen of McGrath Native Village and is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Dr. Michael Williams Sr. is a Tribal citizen and the chief of the Akiak Native Community.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.