Stricter fishing regulations could be coming to a Bristol Bay river district that accounted for nearly 37 percent of the fishing region's record-breaking harvest of 60.1 million sockeye salmon earlier this year.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) is asking the state's board of fisheries to consider numerous proposed changes to Nushagak commercial fishing intended to increase king salmon productivity in Bristol Bay following several years of poor returns.
The Nushagak River is the largest king salmon producer in Bristol Bay, according to ADF&G.
Alaska regulators are looking at several potential scenarios for commercial salmon fisherman that use the Nushagak river district.
Some include changing harvest time schedules that could cause the fishery to lose out on "economic opportunity."
Others involve reducing the mesh size and net length for Nushagak gillnets, which "may decrease total sockeye salmon harvest," according to an ADF&G report on the issue.
In October 2022, the ADF&G recommended Nushagak River king salmon be listed as a stock of management concern, and said it is based on a failure to meet the in-river run goal of 95,000 king salmon in five of the past six years.
In a stark contrast, this year's record-breaking harvest of 60.1 million sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay ended up bringing in a stunning $351.7 million (€363 million) in ex-vessel value, a record high and up nearly 42 percent from last year.
The Alaska Board of Fish on Wednesday was reviewing the recommendations for commercial fisheries along with recommendations proposed for sports and subsistence fishermen.
"It is extremely concerning that the Board of Fish may take action on this document at this meeting," the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents fishermen in the region, said in a statement.
The association noted that there was no cost-benefit analysis included the plan, and that the document "acknowledges the 'stock of concern' label is based on a deeply flawed sonar system never intended to count King salmon."
BBRSDA also noted the report was released the day before the Thanksgiving holiday and after a Board of Fisheries deadline for submitting public comments on the issue, not giving fishermen enough time to weigh in.
The BBRSDA on Wednesday urged its members to consider submitting comments to the Board of Fish, asking them to delay the Nushagak King Salmon Action Plan item until a March 2023 meeting, "so that stakeholders have adequate opportunity to review and comment on the proposed changes."
In 2023, Bristol Bay's Egegik, Ugashik and Nushagak river districts are once again forecast to see the most fish, with escapement predicted at nearly 16.8 million fish total.
Salmon in the spotlight
The proposed regulations come at a politically sensitive time for the Alaska seafood sector, and the salmon industry in particular.
Western Alaska tribal and fishing organizations are becoming increasingly fed up with dwindling chum salmon populations in the state, and are pressuring the US pollock industry to put a hard cap on the chum salmon they haul in as bycatch.
The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents 33 federally recognized Tribes of the Kuskokwim River in Alaska, estimates that US-based Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands vessels could have taken roughly 4,000 chinook salmon and 46,500 chum salmon that were bound for Western and interior Alaska in 2022.
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