Trawler bycatch debate intensifies after Alaska sees dismal chinook returns in 2021

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Anglers are calling on state and federal fisheries managers to change salmon bycatch limits for trawlers as chinook numbers drop across Alaska.

Chinook salmon returns have been dismal virtually everywhere in Alaska this year, from the Southeast to the Bering Sea, with a few exceptions. This follows a trend, as abundance has declined over the past decade or so. Commercial fishermen lost most of their chance to harvest kings, and sport fishing was restricted. Now, subsistence fishing is restricted to help preserve the runs.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board is discussing the changes at its meeting this month. Trawlers, which use weighted nets to drag along the bottom or in intermediate waters, are allowed to make a certain amount of bycatch when fishing for their target species, the largest of which is pollock. Bycatch is always a hot topic, but it is especially the case now.

The Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game informed the council in a letter dated September 23 that three indicator species it uses to track king salmon runs in the Bering Sea – the Unalakleet, Yukon and Kuskokwim – have not reached the necessary threshold. maintain current bycatch quotas. This threshold is set at 250,000 fish between the three rivers; this year, they were 165,148.

Kuskokwim’s race came within the expected range, but the other two failed.

The salmon shortage this year has hit fishing communities hard, especially among subsistence fishermen. Amos T. Philemenoff, Sr., president of the Aleut community on St. Paul’s Island, wrote to the board that the salmon shortages in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region this year have had an impact on traditions livelihood of the island. Donations of salmon from commercial fishermen to replace lost food do not replace traditions, he said.

“Our communities have experienced physical, mental, emotional and spiritual hardships due to the impacts of overfishing and mismanagement that characterize these Alaskan fisheries,” he wrote. “The burden of conservation has fallen on native users (eg, for subsistence) who are not part of the collapsing salmon population. “

Philemenoff said the island community has raised concerns about the Bering Sea ecosystem for years and highlighted a combination of factors, including over-trawling of fishery resources and climate change. Sea ice has become increasingly scarce, no longer surrounding St. Paul’s Island since 2011 and 2012, and seabird deaths have become increasingly common in the region.

“The decline in populations of Northern Fur Seals, Steller Sea Lions, Pribilof Island King Crab and Pacific Halibut, to name a few, has been devastating to livelihoods. , the well-being and the future of our tribal and community members, ”he said. “We have brought these concerns to this Council for years, decades. “

He called for the council to reduce salmon bycatch allocations to zero for the Bering Sea pollock fishery to zero in 2022, seek federal disaster relief and research funding, and that the council is seeking tribal consultation on bycatch and salmon management.

The Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission called for the same action in its letter, noting that due to the lack of information on the reason for the salmon collapse, “sustainable management of the fishery requires that the Council limit bycatch of salmon in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. to ensure that NO salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in 2022. “

Kawerak, Inc., the Ocean Conservancy, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association, and the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association have made similar requests.

Several commentators call for equally severe measures for the pollock fishery in the Bering Sea, but others note that large reductions could also have a significant impact on indigenous coastal communities as they hold an interest in this fishery by l through their CDQ groups. Fishermen from the Coastal Villages Region Fund, which represents villages around the Kuskokwim River Delta and surrounding areas, caught around 102 million pounds of pollock in 2019, according to this year’s CVRF annual report.

Others are calling for changes to the management of bycatch in the trawl fishery. Salmon Habitat Information Partnership Program letter signed by 300 commercial fishers asks council to reconsider a decision it made regarding the distribution of chinook bycatch in the Gulf of Pollock fisheries. Alaska.

In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a rule moving 1,350 chinook salmon from the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery to the non-redfish catching vessel sector in the Gulf.

These 1,350 chinook are an expected unused portion of the prohibited species catch limit – essentially some that the pollock fleet did not catch when they were permitted. Letter fishermen from everywhere from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor protested the move, saying the fish should be left in the gulf rather than being allowed to be caught by another area as bycatch.

“The people of Alaska are making huge sacrifices to protect Chinooks; the federal government via the NPFMC must do the same, ”the letter said. “Chinook salmon bycatch transferred to another trawl area to be killed and discarded is unreasonable as many Alaskans forgo subsistence, sport fishing and commercial harvesting. “

Salmon fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska, from the southeast to Bristol Bay, have suffered restrictions this year due to the low return of king salmon. In Bristol Bay, early season commercial fishing in Nushagak District was restricted due to the slow return of king salmon. At Cook Inlet, set nets were completely closed in mid-July due to a poor return of king salmon, as well as a complete closure of the Kenai River king salmon sport fishery. In the southeast, sport fishermen were restricted from June to protect kings returning to rivers. In the letter, the fishermen argue that the reversal policy must be reversed while the council takes longer-term action to address the bycatch of king salmon in the trawl fisheries in the Gulf.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board is meeting this week via Zoom. The link to the meetings is on their website at npfmc.org.


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