Most “prudent” step for now; NPFMC tells W. AK users to “hang in there with the process”
LW Comment: While salmon fishermen and subsistence users in Western Alaska are likely to be banned from taking any salmon again this summer, the 2023 pollock quota for Bering Sea trawlers was increased by 17% by the NPFMC to 1.3 million metric tons (nearly 3 billion pounds). Most of the voting members on the Council represent companies or groups that have direct investments in Bering Sea pollock vessels.
CLICK HERE to see the Council’s Purpose and Need statement and alternatives for analysis. It will be revisited in the fall.
Federal fishery managers took a step over the weekend toward applying a firm cap on the accidental catches of chum salmon by large vessels trawling for pollock in the Bering Sea, a subject that has gained urgency with salmon run failures along Western Alaska rivers. But it didn’t go as far as what was sought by some raising alarms about the failures.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has been meeting since last weekend in Anchorage, approved a plan that sets some parameters for how such a cap would be established. Under the action approved by the council, the National Marine Fisheries Service would start the regulatory process of determining limits for allowable bycatch, the term for incidental harvesting of nontargeted species.
The council rejected some specific numbers for limits to allowable chum salmon bycatch that had been recommended by its advisory panel. That panel — a group with representatives of industry, fishers and communities – recommended chum bycatch caps ranging between 22,000 and 54,000 fish. Pollock fisheries would be forced to cease for the season if bycatch limits were reached. Average annual chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea fisheries from 2011 to 2021 was just under 40,000, according to NMFS.
The action taken Saturday was the most prudent step to be taken now, council members said.
“As a body we need to be absolutely certain that we are doing everything we can to avoid making this crisis any worse than it already is,” he said.
Council member Kenny Down encouraged affected Western Alaska fishers like those who testified at the meeting to “hang in there with this process.” It is important to continue to hear from them, he said.
“That provides the urgency that we need to move this as quickly as we possibly can in the process that we have, which is not known for being quick, but it’s the process that we’ve got,” he said.
The council’s action fell short of what is needed to address the crisis, critics said.
“We’re disappointed but not surprised by the inaction of the council,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, a nonprofit organization focused on protection of Alaska salmon.
Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the council action was less than what was desired, but a step forward nonetheless.
“We were hoping the Council would start the process of analyzing management action to reduce Western Alaska chum salmon bycatch, rather than asking more questions and delaying true action. However, we have hope that we are moving forward, in great part because of the ongoing and powerful testimonies from Alaska Native salmon fishermen, and that the information from the Council’s ask will inform meaningful action to conserve salmon in the Bering Sea,” Whitworth said in the statement.