Claim federal managers use outdated data, fail to consider environmental changes when setting catch limits
Anchorage, Alaska – The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) and Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), represented by Earthjustice, have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in U.S. District Court in Alaska, seeking to reexamine groundfish catch limits for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.
AVCP and TCC collectively work on behalf of nearly 100 Tribes and communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
The lawsuit alleges that when NMFS recently adopted groundfish catch limits for 2023-2024, the agency unlawfully relied on outdated environmental studies and failed to consider monumental ecosystem-wide changes that have occurred in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands ecosystems over the last two decades.
Alaska is facing a historic salmon crisis which is crushing the people and tribes of Western Alaska. Subsistence fishing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions of the state has been severely restricted for over a decade while the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch each year. Meanwhile, radical ecosystem changes have negatively affected conditions for Chinook and chum salmon rearing in the ocean. The federal government’s current fisheries management decisions prioritize maximizing groundfish catch over protecting the subsistence rights of Alaska Native peoples who are deeply impacted by those decisions.
Despite these sweeping ecosystem changes and their dramatic effects on people in the region who depend on the marine environment, NMFS set groundfish catch limits based on analyses well over a decade old. These rapid and unprecedented ecosystem changes are relevant to fisheries management decisions and defendants cannot make informed decisions based on severely outdated studies.
AVCP Chief Executive Officer Vivian Korthuis said, “This litigation is intended to hold the government accountable for its lack of action, lack of urgency and lack of understanding that as our environment changes, catastrophic impacts are occurring in our waters. This lawsuit has been brought to protect the subsistence way of life which is critical to the health and well-being of the tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. The federal government continues its ‘business as usual’ deliberate and ineffective management style as our people suffer and our waters are forever harmed.”
The Yukon-Kuskokwim region is one of the most cash-poor regions of the state, making the salmon harvest particularly important for food security as well as the continuation of the region’s cultures. Households share salmon with other households and communities to ensure that all community members have enough to eat. Since at least 2007, western Alaska Chinook salmon stocks have been in decline, followed by collapses in chum and coho salmon stocks over the last three years.
Brian Ridley, Chief/Chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference said, “NMFS has failed at every turn to truly manage the natural resources they are responsible to protect. NMFS needs to do a supplemental environmental impact study to analyze the fisheries management plan considering today’s changing climate and dramatic salmon declines. The pollock fleet keeps trawling up salmon and no adjustments have been made to the overall management approach – this must be addressed. The government allows the commercial industry to carry on unchanged, while the people who have responsibly cared for our precious natural resources for centuries are harmed.”
In addition to catastrophic salmon declines, the Bering Sea has experienced warming ocean temperatures, loss of sea ice, shifts in the abundance and distribution of fish species, massive seabird die-offs, decreased nutrient productivity, and a variety of other changes cascading across the ecosystem. Yet fisheries management decisions continue to be based on outdated environmental analyses that do not account for the current environment or the effect fisheries management decisions have on Alaska Native peoples who depend on salmon and other ocean resources to support their ways of life.
Now is the time for the Court to help provide relief both to our people and our natural resources.
Association of Village Council Presidents
Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) is a regional non-profit tribal consortium comprised of the 56 federally recognized tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. AVCP’s region is approximately 55,000 square miles, with a population of 27,000 residing in 48 communities along the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, and Bering Sea coast. The residents of the region are primarily Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan. AVCP is dedicated to supporting the interests of its member tribes, including through community development, education, social services, culturally relevant programs, and advocacy. AVCP promotes self-determination and protection and enhancement of cultural and traditional values. As part of its mission, AVCP has long been committed to advocating for the protection of the Bering Sea and its resources.
Tanana Chiefs Conference
Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), organized as Dena’ Nena’ Henash, or “Our Land Speaks,” is a sovereign Tribal consortium with forty-two member Tribes across Interior Alaska, including thirty-seven federally recognized Tribes. TCC is an Alaska Native non-profit organization that provides health and social services for the more than 18,000 Alaska Native people in the Interior Alaska region. TCC’s region covers 235,000 square miles of Interior Alaska that comprises the Yukon Koyukuk, Yukon Tanana, Lower Yukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Yukon Flats, and Upper Tanana subregions. TCC is charged by its member Tribes with advancing Tribal self-determination and enhancing regional Native unity. Its mission is to provide a unified voice to advance sovereign tribal governments through the promotion of physical and mental wellness, education, socioeconomic development, and culture of the Interior Alaska Native people.
Earthjustice is a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization that wields the power of the law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. Earthjustice has offices in Anchorage and Juneau in Alaska.
To read the full complaint, click here.