Tribal, commercial fishing groups call for drastic reductions in trawl salmon bycatch

Two crew men shovel a deck full of fish on board a large boat
Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice shovel pollock on the deck of the Commodore as another crew member, Brian Hagen, holds the hose. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Fisheries managers allow whitefish trawlers to inadvertently scoop up halibut, crab and salmon in their nets. The bycatch rate is relatively low. But because the trawlers catch so much of their target species, the unintended harvest adds up.

And that’s raising alarms in Western Alaska, where chum and king salmon runs have been performing poorly.

While the bycaught salmon is often donated to food banks, it’s of little assurance to those living along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, where subsistence is a way of life. 

“We eat dry fish like people from the Midwest eat bread, with every meal,” Mary Peltola told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this month. She’s the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and lives in the largely Yup’ik community of Bethel. “Our babies teethe on dry fish, it’s the first food most Yup’iks eat and it’s something that we crave year-round.”

Peltola said fishing on the Kuskokwim has been severely restricted to preserve wild salmon stocks. Meanwhile, trawlers haven’t faced new restrictions of their own as they scoop up lucrative whitefish like pollock, cod and halibut. She asked the council to put an end to bycatch in the industrial commercial trawl fleet.

“We’re not policy experts,” Peltola said, “We’re not scientists. We’re not career people. This isn’t part of our career ladder. We’re very desperate to pass on the knowledge that we’ve received over 12,000 years on how to live in harmony with salmon and utilize salmon as our foundational diet.”

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The At-Sea Processors Association — a large industrial trawl organization — said in an emailed statement that no fishery is without bycatch and that’s always other species in the nets or caught on a line. The group argued that a moratorium on salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea would mean a total shutdown of the pollock fishery.

RELATED: Yukon subsistence users go to new lengths for food after chums don’t return

North Pacific Fishery Management Council member Andy Mezirow said he’s heard the call for “zero bycatch” before. He asked: Why not request less bycatch? 

“I can see how it would be galling to have no chinook salmon returning to your river and have thousands of them being caught in the ocean out in front of the river, so I understand your frustration,” Mezirow told Peltola during public testimony. “But what I don’t understand is what the strategy of asking for zero bycatch is. That’s a huge change from where we’re at now.”

Peltola responded that the goal should be zero. 

“For people who rely on salmon for food security, if they cannot harvest one (salmon), then the commercial industry should not be able to harvest any accidentally when it is not even what you’re targeting,” Peltola said. “There are strong feelings also that even the term bycatch is an affront to foundational principles of not wasting, and making sure that all life is sustainable and able to regenerate itself.”

In 2020, Bering Sea trawlers reported bycatch of tens of thousands of chinook salmon and hundreds of thousands of chum. 

This year’s abysmal salmon runs to the Kuskokwim, Unalakleet and Upper Yukon rivers have already triggered one of the council’s bycatch reduction measures. But even under these rules, the trawl fleet is allowed to catch up to 45,000 kings. 

And the Bering Sea isn’t the only place where bycatch is a problem.

In the Gulf of Alaska, some salmon fishermen complain about rules that allow bycatch allocations to be moved around. If pollock trawlers in one area catch 1,300 fewer king salmon, for example, that 1,300 salmon allowance can be transferred to another fishery.

Kodiak-based commercial salmon fisherman Alexus Kwachka is a former member of the NPFMC’s advisory panel, and was among the dozens who recently called on Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the NPFMC to tighten the rules

“The trawl fleet has done a mighty job of trying to mitigate their interaction with king salmon,” Kwachka said in a phone interview. “But the bottom line is they still use a bunch of them. And, you know, as these programs have developed, we’ve allowed for one fishery to roll fish into the next fishery. And I think that it’s time to revisit that, and see if that’s really, you know, if we’re talking about saving king salmon, then the net result should be savings.”

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Kwachka said he believes that weighing commercial interests like the billion-dollar pollock industry against rural subsistence traditions is a false equivalence.

“The tax that the state receives is minor compared to the cost that’s being incurred by the residents of the state, as far as way of life, whether you’re talking about halibut or crab or salmon,” he said.

Kwachka said he knows that climate change issues play a factor in the ongoing declines of wild salmon stocks in much of the state. 

“It’s not all put on the pollock fishery,” he said. “Obviously, there’s something going on in the ecosystem. But until we have a better understanding of what’s going on, I think that savings should be savings.”

RELATED: Subsistence users, scientists seek answers for chum salmon declines

The Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, an industry group representing independent catcher vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, said its business model depends on its ability to shift bycatch limits around. 

“If trawling shuts down, then life as I know it is over,” says Kodiak-based trawler Paddy O’Donnell. “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t keep my boat running. And so that’s the impact it’s gonna have on me and a lot of other families that are in the same situation. I don’t have other fisheries to go to. I trawl, I don’t salmon fish, I don’t do any other fisheries.”

O’Donnell said the fleet has spent years working to improve technology and methods to reduce salmon bycatch.

“The trawl sector has gone a long way in gear development … gear modifications, electronics, and what have you over the years to try and decrease the amount of incidental take we have when it comes to salmon,” he said. “We’re continuing to work on that. We’ll continue to work on that.”

Rebecca Skinner, executive director of Alaska Whitefish Trawlers, said state and federal fisheries could benefit from in-depth studies about what’s happening to Alaska’s salmon populations in the marine environment. She doesn’t think trawling needs to be curbed to do those studies. 

“We do need more information, we need more genetic sampling … and it would be very helpful to have a big study or a number of smaller studies to try to get a handle on what is happening in the ocean right now with the salmon,” Skinner said.

Dunleavy’s office has bycatch on the radar. 

“The issue of bycatch in Alaska’s exclusive economic zone, especially of king salmon – Alaska’s state fish, is an issue my administration takes very seriously,” the governor said in an emailed statement. “Subsistence users, sport fishermen, guides, small boat commercial fishermen, and local economies across our state are feeling the impacts of low king runs. We’ll be having conversations with our people on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council about ways to reduce salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska & Bering Sea.”

Earlier this year, the council requested more information about where salmon would have been returning if they hadn’t been bycatch, as well as updated information to matrices that correlate salmon length to age.

Although emergency actions are possible under the charter of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, there are strict guidelines. And it’s not likely that the complex issue of Western Alaska salmon runs and trawler bycatch will fit them, despite calls for just such an emergency action.

One indication of that was a 16-1 vote by the council’s advisory panel recommending against a zero bycatch policy.

Panel member Sinclair Wilt said during discussion that the pollock industry pays into community development funds for many villages in the Y-K Delta and Norton Sound, and there’s no guarantee a zero bycatch rule would put more salmon in the communities. 

“I don’t know what the answer is for the rivers,” Wilt told his fellow panel members, “But shutting down this industry. And putting all these people out of work is not the answer. Shutting down industry — that actually also brings harm to the region.”

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said she’s concerned that the federal fisheries managers are too focused on economics. 

“It’s not just a story of one commercial fishery against the other,” Behnken said. “It’s subsistence. It’s people’s culture. It’s those historic connections to place and family and community that we’re jeopardizing right now.”

Bycatch isn’t limited to salmon. Crab fishermen are also calling for serious reductions in bycatch of juvenile crab in trawl nets. But that’s another debate, for another time.           

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s ongoing meeting runs through Friday. While the advisory panel rejected a zero salmon bycatch proposal, the council will still consider a broader plan that encourages further research about Chinook and chum salmon bycatch, and supports consulting with tribes.      

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.

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