Western Alaska villagers 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 Canada’s Yukon Territory and such dire conditions that they relied on emergency shipments of salmon from elsewhere in Alaska just to have food to eat.
Many of those suffering see one way to provide some quick relief: Large vessels trawling for pollock and other groundfish in the industrial-scale fisheries of the Bering Sea, they say, must stop intercepting so many salmon.
Advocates for tighter rules on those interceptions, known as bycatch, made their case over the past several days to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the organization that manages fish harvests in federal waters off Alaska.
‘Like fishing in the desert’
“The numbers are really low. There’s nothing out 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.
He described how conditions have deteriorated since his childhood in the 1960s, when his family could put a single net in the water and pull out enough fish to fill their boat. “It’s getting even harder to go out and fish and catch those one or two salmon that we need,” he said. “We need it. That’s our identity. That’s been my identity since I was born.”
The council declined to impose any new bycatch rules that would affect the current season. Instead, they approved what members characterized as a rigorous research program to include the formation of a working group with tribal representatives and others from affected communities. The research will also consider recommendations from a bycatch task force formed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The council also urged more voluntary bycatch reduction by the pollock industry, the nation’s largest single-species commercial harvest and supplier of the ubiquitous whitefish found in fish sticks, fast-food fish burgers and imitation crab meat.
The issue is tough, said Bill Tweit, the Washington state representative on the council. “This is certainly one of the hardest natural resource issues that I think I’ve ever dealt with. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier, at least in the near future,” he said.
But he, like the other council members, backed the idea of more research and consultation over new mandates.
“As a council, we’ve had successes when we remain science-based. And that science can be broad and should be broadened, not just our Western knowledge but also traditional knowledge. But we do need to remain science-based as we move forward,” Tweit said.
Bering Sea bycatch of salmon has increased dramatically in the past two years, especially for chum salmon, a species that has traditionally been a dietary staple in western Alaska.
Last year, the Bering Sea and Aleutians Island trawl fishery caught 546,043 chum salmon in nets intended to harvest pollock, twice the 10-year annual average, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Analysis of genetics revealed that 9.4% were from Western Alaska and the Yukon River, compared to an average of about 20%, so the total number of chum salmon originating from those Alaska regions and netted as bycatch was closer to averages. The majority of the chum salmon netted in bycatch turned out to be from Asia, according to the report.
In absolute volume, nonetheless, the Alaska-originating chum dwarfs the harvests along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. On the lower Kuskokwim last year, only about 50,000 salmon in total were harvested, and only about 4,220 of them were chum, according to the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, with the remainder nearly evenly divided between sockeye and Chinook salmon. Commercial harvests last year were likewise paltry – only 5,845 chum and 2,582 Chinook in the Kuskokwim and absolutely no commercial harvest on the Yukon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Science points beyond bycatch
But scientific analysis so far points to something much larger than bycatch as the force behind Western Alaska salmon declines, experts told the council.
Fishery scientists from both NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in presentations to the council, described a myriad of problems related to warming conditions and climate change.
Those include marine heat waves that scrambled food supplies, forcing salmon at sea to switch from high-quality food like oil-packed capelin to low-quality food like jellyfish; low fat reserves carried over from summers to winters; skewed growth rates and smaller fish sizes for both Chinook and chum; and heat stress in rivers that triggered large die-offs of fish before they were able to spawn.
The disruptions to Western Alaska runs coincided with the arrival six years ago of a multiyear marine heat wave in the Bering Sea, said biologist Katie Howard of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We do know that something dramatic happened starting in 2016,” she told the council.
But of all the factors, bycatch is the one that the council can control, said advocates for stronger action.
“The council doesn’t have the jurisdiction to take action on climate change. The council is supposed to be taking care of the fishery,” said Lindsey Bloom of the nonprofit organization SalmonState.
What SalmonState and similar organizations wanted, Bloom said, was a firm cap on bycatch to be in effect this year, full coverage of the industry – both in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska – by onboard observers who can monitor catches and their effects and some mandates for specially designed nets used on some ships that trap pollock but allow 30% to 40% of salmon to escape.
Any single salmon netted at sea by the trawl fleet hurts the salmon harvesters, said Amy Daugherty of the Alaska Trollers Association, a group representing smaller-scale fishermen.
“We’re the other end of the stick from trawlers because we catch one fish at a time, so each fish has significant value to us,” she told the council.
Representatives of the pollock industry have pushed back against the idea that they’re responsible for the salmon crashes.
Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade group of operators of huge ships that both harvest and process fish, said that although 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 really is at this time the only thing that is controllable. You can put your hand on the dial and you can turn it down and hope there will be an impact to those that are in crisis,” she told the council on Saturday. But that will not address the real culprits, she said, listing climate change, lack of food and possible competition with hatchery fish. “I’m concerned that as you turn the dial down potentially on the pollock fishery and incidental catch, the results are not what folks are hoping for and disappointment will continue,” she said.
Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, said drastic changes to control bycatch could have “unanticipated impacts.”
“In the Bering Sea, our bycatch management is complex. We manage based on latitude, longitude, depth and temporal vectors,” Vincent-Lang told the council last week. “Changing any vector impacts the bycatch of other species. For example, closing an area for crab could increase halibut bycatch. Or moving trawl gear off the bottom could increase salmon bycatch. Or moving the fleet temporally to reduce chum bycatch could push the fleet to times when Chinook are present.”
As the council wrapped up its June meeting, there were more developments showing the dismal state of salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim areas.