This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been looking at ways to cut back on the number of Chinook salmon that get scooped up by commercial trawl boats in the Bering Sea.
The goal is to send more salmon back to subsistence users around the state.
It hardly needed to be said — but as state biologist Katie Howard pointed out in a presentation to the North Pacific council:
“These recent declines in run abundance for Chinook salmon [are] really a statewide phenomenon, but it has been very notable in Western Alaska stocks,” Howard said.
That’s led to commercial closures and subsistence restrictions around the region. At the same time, Western Alaska salmon made up about half of all the Chinook that were pulled up commercial trawl boats, out looking for pollock in the Bering Sea.
Researchers have spent the past few days trying to explain how the North Pacific Council could change that.
One option is make trawl vessels fish earlier in the year — when there are fewer salmon feeding in the Bering Sea. Another is to increase the penalties for the boats with the worst track records.
Alan Haynie is with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
“There’s a speed limit. And if you go over the speed limit, there’s something that you’re going to pay,” Haynie said.
Signing up for fines and voluntary closures is part of the reason why the pollock fleet has avoided heavy restrictions on bycatch until now.
Working together to avoid salmon has been pretty successful. The pollock fleet has never come close to catching their absolute limit of 60,000 Chinook — or having their harvest immediately shut down.
Lowering that cap is technically an option. But the North Pacific council’s advisory board voted against it this week.
As Haynie, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center scientist pointed out:
“One thing that’s really become clear in terms of assessing the impacts on the fleet is that the impacts aren’t just a little more fuel,” Haynie said. “They’re big changes in product value. When people move off of fish that are the optimal size and move somewhere else, there’s a real loss in that sense.”
Haynie says it won’t be possible to account for those losses before the North Pacific council takes a final vote this weekend.
When they do, they’ll be down one member. Simon Kinneen has been asked to recuse himself from voting on salmon bycatch.
Kinneen is a vice president for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, or NSEDC. They’re a community development quota group for Nome and surrounding villages — with their own piece of pollock quota and ownership shares in other seafood businesses.
Lauren Smoker is an attorney with the NOAA Office of General Counsel.
“If a council member has financial interests that exceed 10 percent of the harvests or processing, that is a threshold that has been exceeded and a recusal determination follows,” Smoker said.
Kinneen appealed the ruling, but it still stands.