NPFMC Tightens Limits on Chinook Bycatch

The Bering Sea pollock fleet is about to face tougher restrictions when it comes to salmon. This weekend, federal regulators agreed to tie the cap on Chinook bycatch to the health of Western Alaska’s runs.

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When the North Pacific Fishery Management Council first set up a hard limit on Chinook salmon, they set it in stone.

Now, they’ll check each year to make sure at least a quarter-million salmon got out of the Bering Sea and back up the river system. Otherwise, the pollock fleet will lose a quarter of their Chinook limit.

Council member Sam Cotten represents the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He introduced the measure.

“At this point, any additional fish returning to those rivers improves the ability to meet escapement goals, which is necessary for the long-term sustainability of the stock — and the people reliant on that fishery,” Cotten said.

After a string of subsistence fishing closures and historically bad returns, the council was under pressure to act.

The final vote was unanimous, but there was still some disagreement. Member Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the initial cut was too steep. He carried an amendment to bump it up to 45,000 Chinook. Any more than that, and vessels will be forced to stop fishing.

The pollock industry was almost universally opposed.

Captains and fleet managers said they’ve started to see more salmon up on the fishing grounds. Until they make it back to the Unalakleet, Upper Yukon, and Kuskokwim rivers, the runs will still look bad — and the bycatch limit will drop down with them.

Under those conditions, Donna Parker of the Arctic Storm Management Group said she believes the pollock harvest is likely to get shut down.

“And you’re going to shut it down without a benefit to rebuilding those rivers,” Parker said. “It has been demonstrated [that] this will not impact the reproductive productivity of the rivers.”

A clear estimate wasn’t available from the North Pacific Council’s scientists — in part, because it’s hard to say what happens to a salmon on its way upstream. The ecosystem’s still being researched.

The financial impacts were an immediate concern. About 100 boats fish for pollock in the Bering Sea. It’s the largest, most valuable harvest in the country, and almost all of it is landed in the eastern Aleutian Islands.

Frank Kelty is a resource analyst for the city of Unalaska, where pollock makes up well over half the local tax base.

“Every king salmon in that area in Western Alaska is important,” Kelty said. “But we could have a major impact to a fishery and communities in my area that I don’t think is justified to change what we have in place now.”

Over the last few years, trawlers have been getting fewer Chinook on accident — down to around 13,000 fish or 2 percent of the total population. Using excluder nets and rolling closures to seal off the areas where there’s the most salmon has made a difference.

The North Pacific Council voted to expand both of those measures. They also increased the amount of pollock that’s up for harvest in the winter, when bycatch rates are lowest for Chinook and chum salmon.

They’re a new priority. They may not be as threatened as Chinook, but chums are still an important source of food and income in Western Alaska.

Tribal leaders from the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Association of Village Council Presidents spoke on behalf of the region at the council meeting.

But Joe Garnie was one of the few residents who managed to make the trip to Anchorage from his village just outside of Nome. Garnie said things have changed in Teller.

“For the last 12 years, I’ve not caught one king, so I’ve had a forced closure on my king fishing,” Garnie said. “And I made the adjustment. I’m still here. I’m still healthy.”

In time, Garnie said the pollock industry — and the people who rely on it — will learn to make their own adjustments.

The new restrictions on bycatch won’t go into effect immediately. They still have to be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Commerce. And the North Pacific Council also wants a look to make sure the regulations match up with their intent.