While the Alaska pollock industry has so far avoided specific limits proposed through a so-called "hard cap" on Alaska chum salmon bycatch for trawlers, moving forward with some sort of limit for chum bycatch remains a possibility.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which determines fisheries regulations in federal waters off Alaska, voted this month to move forward with analyzing several alternatives. One alternative would create an overall limit for the number of salmon chum bycatch that would close the pollock fishery if reached. One cap limit was proposed at 200,000 to 550,000 total chum, or about 35,400 to 97,350 coastal western Alaska chum salmon.
"While the pollock fishery intercepts chum salmon originating from the North Pacific and predominantly hatchery origin Russia and Asia chum, the council is focused on the bycatch of western Alaska origin chum salmon, as returns of these fish have declined substantially in recent years, negatively impacting an important source of subsistence for western Alaska residents," the council said following the vote in a statement.
Multiple alternatives can be selected, according to the council. The first review of the impact analysis will be in mid-2024, and the council is scheduled to take final action on this issue by December 2024.
(Watch the testimony provided as well as council deliberations on bycatch)
Alaska tribes are intensely scrutinizing the US Alaska pollock fishery, asking about its role in devastatingly low chum counts on the Yukon River now for several years in a row.
"Underneath current conditions of western Alaska chum salmon population indexes, crisis level population declines require the most conservative measures to allow for chum salmon populations to recover," said a letter from Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.
The association's executive director, Serena Fitka, has asked for several years along with others in Alaska's tribal subsistence sector that a hard cap be imposed as the ongoing lack of chum salmon has resulted in a severe food crisis and financial hardship for the remote Yukon region.
There is no chum bycatch limit on the fishery, but US pollock fishing companies are directed to "minimize king and chum salmon bycatch to the extent practicable," according to the NPFMC.
Setting such a cap on chum salmon bycatch could have severe ramifications for the Alaska pollock fishing sector, however, major players in the industry have pointed out.
The council confirmed "western Alaska chum salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery, reducing the amount of salmon that return to western and interior Alaska rivers and subsistence fisheries."
The council said recent declines in chum salmon populations across many regions of the North Pacific, including Canada, Japan, Russia, Korea, and the United States appear to be driven by warmer water temperatures in both the marine and freshwater environments which impact juvenile survival, prey availability and quality, metabolism and growth rates, and reproductive rates.
The council’s decisions were based on recommendations from the NPFMC's Scientific and Statistical Committee, the Advisory Panel, as well as public input that was provided through numerous written comments and testimony from over 50 people.