Fisheries managers call for more scrutiny of salmon bycatch, but refuse to tighten rules
Villagers in western Alaska have endured the worst chum salmon runs on record, several years of anemic Chinook salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, harvest closures from the Bering Sea coast to the Territory Canadian Yukon and conditions so harsh they relied on emergency salmon shipments. moreover in Alaska just to have food to eat.
Many of those suffering see a way to bring quick relief: the big ships trawling pollock and other groundfish in industrial Bering Sea fisheries, they say, must stop intercepting so many salmon .
Supporters of stricter rules on such interceptions, known as bycatch, have in recent days pleaded with the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the organization that manages fish harvests in federal waters off the coast of Alaska.
“Like fishing in the desert”
“The numbers are really low. There is nothing there. It’s like fishing in the desert,” Walter Morgan, of the Yup’ik village of Lower Kalskag, said in online testimony to the council, which met in Sitka.
It becomes even more difficult to go fishing and catch the salmon or salmon that we need… We need them. It is our identity. It’s been my identity since I was born.
Walter Morgan, of the Yup’ik village of Lower Kalskag, in an online testimony
He described how conditions had deteriorated since he was a child in the 1960s, when his family could put a single net in the water and pull out enough fish to fill their boat. “It becomes even more difficult to go fishing and catch the salmon or salmon that we need,” he said. “We need it. It’s our identity. It’s been my identity since I was born.
The council refused to impose new rules on bycatch that would affect the current
season. Instead, they endorsed what members said was a rigorous research program to include forming a task force with tribal representatives and others from affected communities. The research will also consider recommendations from a bycatch task force formed by Governor Mike Dunleavy. The council also called for a more voluntary reduction in bycatch by the pollock industry, the nation’s largest single-species commercial crop and supplier of the ubiquitous whitefish found in fish fingers, fish burgers fast food and imitation crabmeat.
It’s a difficult question, said Bill Tweit, the Washington state representative on the board. “It’s definitely one of the toughest natural resource issues I think I’ve ever faced. It doesn’t look like it will get any easier, at least in the near future,” he said.
But he, like other board members, backed the idea of more research and consultation on new terms.
“As a council, we have seen success when we stay science-based. And this science can be broad and should be broadened, not only to our Western knowledge but also to our traditional knowledge. But we have to stay science-based as we move forward,” Tweit said.
Bycatch of salmon in the Bering Sea has increased dramatically over the past two years, especially for chum salmon, a species traditionally a staple in western Alaska.
The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl fishery last year caught 546,043 chum salmon in nets meant to harvest pollock, double the 10-year annual average, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Genetic analysis revealed that 9.4% came from western Alaska and the Yukon River, compared to an average of about 20%, so the total number of chum salmon from these parts of the Alaska and taken as bycatch was closer to the averages. According to the report, the majority of chum salmon caught in bycatch came from Asia.
In absolute volume, however, chum native to Alaska eclipses crops along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. According to the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, last year only about 50,000 total salmon were harvested, and only about 4,220 of those were chum, with the rest almost evenly split between sockeye and salmon. chinook. Last year, commercial harvests were also paltry – just 5,845 chums and 2,582 Chinooks in the Kuskokwim and absolutely no commercial harvests in the Yukon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Science points beyond bycatch
But scientific analysis so far points to something far more important than bycatch as the force behind the decline of western Alaskan salmon, experts told the council.
Fisheries scientists from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in presentations to the board, described a myriad of issues related to warming conditions and changing climatic.
These include marine heat waves that have scrambled food supplies, forcing salmon at sea to switch from high-quality foods like capelin in oil to low-quality foods like jellyfish; low fat stores carried over from summers to winters; biased growth rates and smaller fish sizes for Chinook and Chum; and heat stress in rivers that caused mass mortality of fish before they could spawn.
The migration disruptions from western Alaska coincided with the arrival six years ago of a multi-year marine heat wave in the Bering Sea, said Department of Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Katie Howard. Alaska hunting. “We know something dramatic happened from 2016,” she told the council.
But of all the factors, bycatch is the one the council can control, advocates of stronger action said.
“The council does not have the power to act on climate change. The council is supposed to take care of the fishery,” said Lindsey Bloom of the nonprofit SalmonState.
What SalmonState and similar organizations wanted, Bloom said, was a hard cap on bycatch in effect this year, full industry coverage — both in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. – by observers on board who can monitor catches and their effects. and some warrants for specially designed nets used on some vessels that trap pollock but allow 30% to 40% of salmon to escape.
Any salmon caught at sea by the trawler fleet harms salmon fishermen, said Amy Daugherty of the Alaska Trollers Association, a group representing small-scale fishers.
“We are at the other end of the trawler stick because we catch one fish at a time, so each fish has significant value to us,” she told the council.
Pollock industry representatives have pushed back against the idea that they are responsible for the salmon accidents.
Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade group of operators of huge vessels that catch and process fish, said that while the situation in western Alaska is “heartbreaking” , bycatch is “clearly not the driver of the decline.”
“I understand from public testimony and reality that it’s really right now the only thing that’s controllable. You can put your hand on the dial and you can turn it down and hope there’s a impact on those in crisis,” she told the council on Saturday. But it won’t tackle the real culprits, she said, listing climate change, lack of food and possible competition with farmed fish. “I fear that as you potentially reduce pollock fishing and bycatch, the results will not be what people are hoping for and the disappointment will continue,” she said. .
Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said drastic changes to control bycatch could have “unintended impacts”. “In the Bering Sea, our management of bycatch is complex. We manage based on latitude, longitude, depth and time vectors,” Vincent-Lang told the council last week. any vector has an impact on the bycatch of other species. For example, closing an area for crab could increase halibut bycatch. Or moving bottom trawls could increase salmon bycatch. Or temporarily moving the fleet to reduce chum bycatch could push the fleet to times when the Chinook is present.
As the council wrapped up its June meeting, other developments showed the dire state of salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions.
Early returns to the lower Yukon River were in line with expectations of another poor season in that region. And Dunleavy on Tuesday announced the first emergency salmon shipment of 2022 to the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, continuing a string of deliveries that began last year.