Alaska Native organizations representing nearly 100 tribes and communities in Western Alaska are calling on the US Department of Commerce to take emergency action and implement a cap of zero on Alaskan king salmon bycatch for the Alaska pollock industry.

Bycatch is the non-targeted fish caught while commercial fishermen are harvesting a different species. The measure would force the Alaska pollock fishery to close if there are any bycaught king salmon, also called Chinook.

"Emergency action is necessary to address the severe ecological, economic, social, and public health concerns affecting Western and Interior Alaska, including the region’s communities that depend on salmon," the letter sent Jan. 17 to US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission filed the request.

The Alaska pollock industry already has a limit on king salmon bycatch that ranges from 45,000 to 60,000 depending on abundance from three western Alaska rivers.

There is no chum bycatch limit on the fishery, but US pollock fishing companies are directed to "minimize chinook salmon and chum salmon bycatch to the extent practicable," according to the NPFMC.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) manages the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island pollock trawl fleet – including the chinook, chum, and other salmon species incidentally caught and discarded as bycatch by these vessels. The US Secretary of Commerce is responsible for approving the fishery management plans for the species in the state.

The emergency order would last for 180 days after taking effect, and the tribal organizations have asked the NPFMC to initiate a rulemaking process that would scrutinize Chinook salmon while the emergency regulation is in effect, as well as create longer-term rules.

Shifting salmon

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report found Western Alaska salmon abundance reached historic extremes from 2021 into 2022. The area saw record lows for king and chum salmon and record highs for sockeye salmon.

The salmon population declines have led to fishery closures, worsened user conflicts and had profound cultural and food security impacts in Indigenous communities that have been tied to salmon for millennia, the report said.

The state's tribal subsistence sector has pointed out for the past several years the lack of chum has created a severe food crisis for the remote region, leading the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to also look at a potential cap on chum bycatch for groundfish and pollock trawlers.

"Western Alaska communities have watched as salmon populations have experienced problems over the past three to four decades," the organizations said.

The NPFMC Council is meeting in February, where the letter has been posted as an agenda item. The issue has been an ongoing debate for the council for several years, and so far, the Alaska pollock industry has avoided specific limits proposed by the tribal organizations.

For the past few years, the focus has been largely on reducing chum bycatch, with devastatingly low chum counts on the Yukon River now for several years in a row.

In February the NPFMC said it will analyze four alternatives that include implementing an overall limit for the number of salmon chum bycatch that would close the pollock fishery if reached, but they declined to attach any specific number value or range to that proposal.

Industry wary of hard cap

The Alaska pollock industry has been extremely vocal in its opposition to the "hard caps" proposed so far, noting they could shut down the Alaska pollock fleet entirely if implemented.

The pollock industry questions the effectiveness of a chum bycatch cap, noting 91 percent of the chum bycatch recorded in 2021 came from outside of western Alaska, largely from Asian stocks, meaning only 9 percent of chum salmon caught by the US pollock fleet comes from western Alaska stocks.

The At-Sea Processors Association (APA) has asked the council use "the most refined genetics information available," to help the industry prioritize areas and times to avoid in its effort to limit chum bycatch.

The organization represents US pollock fishing giants American Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Arctic Storm, Coastal Villages and Glacier Fish.