Representatives from Alaska's tribal subsistence sector are pushing forward with recommendations for a so-called "hard cap" on Alaska salmon bycatch for Alaska pollock trawlers as the state deals with the fallout from a precipitous drop in chum salmon stocks in western Alaska.
Bycatch is the non-targeted fish caught while commercial fishermen are harvesting a different species. A "hard cap" would force the Alaska pollock fishery to close if it reaches a specified number of bycaught chum.
At a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which determines fisheries regulations in federal waters off Alaska, five tribal members on the salmon bycatch committee pushed forward a recommendation that the Alaska pollock fishery be shuttered if the chum salmon bycatch reached a level in the range of 22,000-54,000 fish, citing historical fishery data from 1991 to 2022.
Among the committee members pushing forward the hard cap range were Serena Fitka, the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association; Jennifer Hooper with the Association of Village Council Presidents; Mellisa Johnson with the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium; Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; and Mike Williams Sr. with the Akiak Native Community.
The state's tribal subsistence sector is scrutinizing the Alaska pollock commercial fishery for reasons why chum and chinook salmon have remained at devastatingly low counts on the Yukon River now for several years in a row.
At-Sea Processors Association (APA) Director Stephanie Madsen, who is also a committee member, emphasized that identifying chum specific to western Alaska makes creating a hard cap challenging. Her organization represents US pollock fishing giants American Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Arctic Storm, Coastal Villages and Glacier Fish.
"There’s no way the pollock fleet can sit here and say we will accept these," she said in response to the five members' recommendations, noting the hard caps could shut down the Alaska pollock fleet entirely, not just her member companies.
Madsen has asked for the council to instead consider an alternative action that takes into account that Alaska chum salmon make up a small proportion of total chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery.
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 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 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.
Madsen submitted a proposal to the committee that among other options asked to establish additional regulatory provisions requiring pollock incentive plan agreements (IPA) to "utilize the most refined genetics information available to further prioritize avoidance of areas and times of highest proportion" of Western Alaska chums in years of low abundance.
The United Catcher Boats, which represents the interests of 71 US Alaska pollock and cod trawler vessels, submitted a separate proposal asking for a chum salmon reduction plan agreement (RPA) during the B fishing season that would require pollock vessels to avoid areas where the has been "an established chum salmon incidental catch rate" and a "historical genetic composition (proportion) of Western Alaska chum salmon to non-Western Alaska chum salmon."
The committee's recommendations move next to the NPFMC's advisory panel, which will take up the issue April 4.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) has an important role in the management of marine resources off Alaska. The council prepares and amends fishery management plans and regulations for the fisheries occurring in federal waters. The council also works very closely with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Board of Fisheries to coordinate management programs in federal and state waters.
The council is one of eight regional councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 to manage fisheries in the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, 3 miles off the coast of Alaska.
The council is made up of appointees from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. The council, along with the advisory bodies, were formed so federal fishery management decisions could be made at a local level, emphasizing public input.
When reviewing potential rule changes, the council draws upon advisory bodies that include an Advisory Panel (AP), the Plan Teams, and other committees. The council will hear reports from the advisory bodies, and hear in-person public testimony at council meetings before taking final action on rule changes. NOAA prepares regulations based on council action.
- The Council’s plan teams are standing advisory bodies whose membership includes scientists and managers who review the status of the Council’s Fishery Management Plans, Fishery Ecosystem Plans, and best available social science.
- The NPFMC Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) is composed of leading scientists in biology, economics, statistics, and social science. The SSC advises the full council on scientific and other technical matters. The SSC also recommends an acceptable biological catch (ABC).
- The NPFMC Advisory Panel (AP) members represent major segments of the fishing industry; catching and processing, subsistence and commercial fishermen, observers, consumers, environmental/conservation, and sport fishermen. The advisory panel recommends total allowable catch (TAC) specifications to the full council.
The Council meets five times each year, usually in February, April, June, October, and December, with three of the meetings held in Anchorage, one in a fishing community in Alaska and one either in Portland or Seattle.
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Correction: a previous version of this story attributed the RPA proposal to Stephanie Madsen.