NPFMC press release on chum salmon bycatch: More review “when it is available”

NPFMC opts for more study on trawl chum cap. Read what's on the table and reactions from across AK.

by | April 12, 2024

A compilation of Council action and reaction

CHUM SALMON BYCATCH PRESS RELEASE

Below is NPFMC’s press release on chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. Dated 4/11/2024.
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Contact: david.witherell@noaa.gov, diana.evans@noaa.gov, 907-271-2815 


NOTICE OF COUNCIL ACTION: Council action to minimize chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery

At its April meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) received significant feedback and testimony from over 100 people, including Tribal leaders and members, CDQ groups, Alaska communities, and pollock fishery participants that helped inform modifications for the next stage of analysis on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) focused on bycatch reductions of Western Alaska chum. The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) determined that the document was insufficient for decision-making and, in addition to public testimony, provided numerous recommendations to better assess the impacts of the actions under consideration.

The Council approved changes to the existing alternatives and included new options for further evaluation including:

  • Lowering the range of bycatch limits being analyzed
  • Aaking (sic) an alternative that links bycatch limits based to western Alaska chum abundance more responsive to signals of salmon declines;
  • Adding an alternative to create an area-specific bycatch limit to control pollock fishing effort from June through August in locations where Western Alaska chum bycatch are likely more present based on historical genetic data; and
  • modifying the current regulations for the pollock fleet to avoid bycatch by closing fishing areas in near real-time throughout the season when chum are on the fishing grounds

Annual genetic sampling by fishery observers certified by the National Marine Fisheries Service shows the Bering Sea pollock fishery intercepts predominantly hatchery origin Russia and Asia chum, but the Council is focused on management actions that could minimize bycatch of western Alaska origin chum salmon, as returns of these fish have declined substantially in recent years, negatively impacting the subsistence way of life for western and interior Alaska residents.

Available science indicates recent declines in chum salmon populations across many regions of the North Pacific, including Canada, Japan, Russia, Korea, and the U.S., appear to be driven by warmer water temperatures in both the marine and freshwater environments which impact juvenile surivival (sic), prey availability and quality, metabolism and growth rates, and reproductive rates. However, Western Alaska chum salmon are also taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery, reducing the amount of salmon that return to western and interior Alaska rivers, and the Council is considering action to address these impacts.

The next required step will be further impact analysis as required by Federal law, to analyze potential environmental, social and cultural, and economic impacts. The Council’s decisions were based on information from the preliminary analysis and recommendations from the SSC, the Advisory Panel, and public testimony.

Multiple alternatives can be selected, and the full description of the alternatives and options is available here. The Council is scheduled to review the next analysis when it is available in late 2024 or early 2025.

Alaska Tribes, Fishing Companies and Fisheries Testify About Declining Salmon Populations

By Georgina Fernandez and Joe Cadotte
NBC – 2 KTUU
April 8, 2024

Representatives from more than 100 Alaska Native tribes and villages, along with representatives of commercial fishing and fisheries, shared their concerns and ideas Saturday in downtown Anchorage over what many consider a declining salmon population crises. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is gathering testimony to help shape possible, federally-backed bycatch rules in the future. The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a letter to the NPFMC on March 29 about proposed management measures to reduce chum salmon Prohibited Species Catch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, as well as possible limits to the chum salmon bycatch.

Many tribal testifiers said declining salmon populations impact their spiritual culture, health and ability to fish. Those in the commercial fishing and fishery industries also testified, addressing their concerns and impacts about the possibility of bycatch restrictions on their businesses and also proposed solutions and ideas.

“My concern that the numbers of salmon returning at some point are going to be dropping down so low that you know the spawn and the fish spawning, and we’re going to be out of fish pretty quick,” Thaddeus Tikiun Jr., chairman of the Association of Village Council Presidents. “It is going to take a number of years once the salmon do return, it’s going to take a number of years before the numbers are back up.”

Leaders in the commercial fishing and fishery industry also testified Saturday.

“We employ a lot of people and if there would be ramifications not only to our employees, our support services, the people that get our product as well as you’ve probably heard a lot about the community quota program which is really dependent on pollock revenues. You can’t see on the fish sonar whether it’s a salmon or a pollock. You can’t tell the difference. We also know that chum salmon like to eat zero aged pollock and so it’s very natural that they’re going to be swimming together.”

Stephanie Madsen, director of the At-sea Processors Association said to ktuu.

Association of Village Council Presidents Calls for Innovative Thinking to Fight the Ongoing Salmon Crisis

Pictured: The AVCP Subsistence Committee members are joined by AVCP Chair Thaddeus Tikiun Jr., AVCP Chief Executive Officer Vivian Korthuis, and Jennifer Hooper AVCP’s Natural Resources Manager.

Anchorage, Alaska- The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) leadership brought powerful testimony to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meeting to bring attention to the dire salmon crisis which is impacting thousands of Native Alaskans.

The AVCP Subsistence Committee members were joined by AVCP Chair Thaddeus Tikiun Jr.  and AVCP Chief Executive Officer Vivian Korthuis. The testimony included:

Julia Dorris

“I cannot imagine a life without salmon in my smoke house and in my freezer. We used to live at our fish camps all summer, now we are luck if we are fishing for a month.

Gas prices and food prices are so high right now. We depend more on fish and moose for our food like our ancestors have done before us. The fishing industry came and negatively impacted our way of life and the food we eat.

Sometimes I feel like aI speaking to deaf ears. We travel from our small villages and testify pleading for our fish, then return home and continue to be regulated. That cycle has to stop. Listen to us, help us so we all have fish forever.”

Martin Andrew

“We use subsistence fishing to connect with our families and our elders. The story is much more than that. It is a story of our families, communities, our togetherness, our resilience.

We depend on our salmon for our native communities. For our cultural identity, and well-being and our food security. Costs of living are high in rural Alaska. We rely on the water and land for our survival.

For generations we have been stewards and protectors of our natural resources.

The priority should be to reduce or eliminate bycatch and protect salmon.

We are not asking for anything more and less than for what a human being needs for survival. We are asking for the right to protect our food sources and to do the best we can within our control to preserve and rebuild stock.

As a council you have a responsibility to us and our communities. You were entrusted with listening to us and to help us protect our food sources.”

Christina Changsak

“We haven’t fished for 4 or 5 years and that is hurting all of us subsistence ushers who rely on the land.

We gather by the seasons and it in our freezers to support our families. This has been our tradition for years and I would like to pass this down to my children and grandchildren.

We live in a community which has no road system, so everything comes in by plane and if the weather is bad the local stores run out. We rely on subsistence.”

Ray Oney

“We are not in support of any one alternative, more goals and objectives are needed to rebuild the chinook and chum stocks in the AYK region.

Native communities have relied on the subsistence way of life for generations. We follow the seasons.

The salmon shortage is a dire situation-a crisis which is threatening who we are as a people. Salmon is a main source of sharing in our culture as well.”

We are asking to protect out food sources and protect our food source.”

Joseph Joseph

“Growing up at our fish camp, our parents limited our subsistence catches just enough to sustain us through the winter. Now, there are no such subsistence activities in the Yukon River.

The by-catch reports are just numbers, they do not take a full look at the full picture.”

Thaddeus Tikiun, Jr.

“It is up to you all sitting at the table to make the right decision something that is fair for all the users. Sometimes I feel like the only time I am recognized is during my three minutes at hearings like this.”

At some point someone must make a call. We have sacrificed along the rivers allowing and conserving salmon voluntarily to let salmon pass to the spawning grounds.

We, the subsistence users bear the burden in the use of all natural resources. and we have to fight both the state and federal authorities just to subsists.”

Vivian Korthuis

Our communities rely on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and the Bering Sea for food.  Salmon is our way of life. We are Salmon people.  It is our cultural identity.

Right now, our cultural identity is under attack. Our subsistence way of life is being questioned. We will not sit silently and watch this happen.

The situation is dire.  In my opinion, we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis in our own State of Alaska. 

This crisis is not fast acting like a war, but a slow elimination of not only people and unique indigenous cultures, but a whole ecosystem that supports salmon on the North American Continent. 

We are asking that you make transformative decisions to help our communities-just as the Council should help any other stakeholder that comes before you.

In our review of the report, we did not see engagement with our communities. I did not see conversations with our Elders and Tribes. I did not see use of our Indigenous Knowledge to help support or defer any alternative presented. This cannot continue.

vivian korthuis speaking to the npfmc

My ask is that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meet and come to Bethel to hear directly from our tribes and communities about the Salmon Crash including the EIS. 

Change needs to happen. The status quo cannot be continued. Our communities are suffering and hungry, our resources are wasted, and our cultural identity is dying.

As a Council, please do not ignore what you hear from even the smallest of villages.  I am asking that you take everything we are saying into consideration when you make your decisions.

In closing, our villages in the AYK region are experiencing a devastating salmon crash.  It has touched every household and every family in our region.

Spring Breaking Up is just a month away.  This time of the year is when we start preparing to put salmon away for food. Are we going to see another fishing season with not enough salmon?”

NPFMC Moves Forward With Further Limits on Chum Salmon Bycatch In Bering Sea Pollock Fleet

By Peggy Parker/SeafoodNews.com
April 10, 2024

Spurred by a flood of testimony from Western Alaska Tribes, and a detailed recommendation from their own advisory panel of industry stakeholders, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council revised their alternatives to reduced chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fleet.

The needle the federal panel is trying to thread would reduce the number of chum salmon during the pollock fishery’s B season — June through October — which is also when Western Alaska chum salmon are returning to their spawning grounds in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, tributaries as far upstream as in Canada’s Yukon Territory. For years, commercial, sports, and now subsistence harvests of chum salmon has been curtailed or cut altogether along the rivers. The majority of public comments pointed out the need for the chum bycatch to be curtailed as well, particularly during B season when more chum are in the area, on their way to spawning. 

The April 8 motion asks for analyses of new bycatch numbers of all chum salmon and within them, of Western Alaska chum (WAC). Other stocks are passing through the Bering Sea on their way to hatcheries in Russia and Japan, areas of South-central or Southeast Alaska, Canada, and the West Coast.

The first alternative is always status quo. Alternative 2 would set a limit based on historical total bycatch numbers, ranging from 100,000 – 500,000 total chum or 17,100 – 94,050 Western Alaska chum (WAC). 

Alternative 3 would tie a Western Alaska chum salmon abundance index to the bycatch limit, with two options that would trigger a limit. The first option is a three-area chum index based on abundance of the Yukon River summer and fall runs, Kuskokwim River run based on the Bethel test fishery, and Norton Sound run based on total river escapement as well as the Norton Sound harvest of chum salmon. The second option is an index based solely on the Yukon River summer and fall run abundance, with tiered triggers. For instance, if both runs are above the index threshold established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, then there will be no chum salmon limit the following year. If one or no areas are above the index threshold, the chum salmon limit the following year is 100,00-500,000 chum salmon. 

Alternative 4 puts chum bycatch reduction firmly in the hands of the industry by incorporating “industry proposed measures” that avoid areas and times of high density of chum salmon, described and enforced in the Incentive Plan Agreements (IPAs) within the fleets. 

Alternative 5 creates a cap range of 50,000-200,000 chum salmon, or 8,550 – 34,200 WAC salmon in a corridor area during June 10 to August 31 every year. Options refer to which part of the corridor would be chosen: Cluster 1, the Unimak area, or Cluster 2, each described by ADF&G statistical areas or by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center Auke Bay Lab in their annual genetic reports.  Once that cap is reached, then the area closes for the rest of the time period. 

Apportionment of all caps to the various sectors of the pollock fishery — shore based processors, motherships, catcher processors, and Community Development Quotas — will be based on one of four options: a three-year average, a five-year average, a pro rata 25/75 split between AFA allocation and historical bycatch in the that area, or a pro rata percentage based on the AFA pollock allocation.  

The move was a shift for the federal council, which until now has resisted the idea of a cap on chum salmon bycatch. While nothing happens quickly at the regional council level, and because Alaska’s federal fisheries management of Alaska pollock is fraught with complexity and high stakes — pollock is the nation’s most valuable fishery year after year — any change in status quo has been difficult. 

That the motion now considers caps and lower bycatch numbers, although not as low as the advisory panel’s motion, is due in large part to compelling testimony by over 300 individuals and groups providing comments and over 100 speaking before the council over three days. 

The next action on this issue is scheduled for the NPFMC’s October meeting in Anchorage, from September 30-October 8, 2024.

Fishery council votes to study tighter limit on Bering Sea pollock fleet’s chum salmon bycatch

By Hal Bernton, for the Anchorage Daily News
April 11, 2024

Alaska Pollock slide into a holding tank aboard the Northern Hawk factory trawler on Aug. 5, 2023 in the Bering Sea. Each haul of the net can be more than 100 metric tons of fish. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

After a marathon of testimony dominated by Western Alaskans’ anguish over declining salmon runs, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted this week to consider tighter restrictions on chum salmon accidentally taken by Bering Sea pollock trawlers.

Under one council alternative, the pollock fleet’s summer harvest season could be shut down if as few as 100,000 chum were brought up in nets. That is an annual chum bycatch tally that the pollock fleet has most often exceeded in recent years. But it’s still well above the 22,000 chum limit that a council advisory panel — with support from tribes — sought to include as a possible cap.

“It’s a tough call, and hence the balance,” said Rachel Baker, a state Department of Fish and Game official who serves on the federal council and crafted the motion. “It’s so clear, with this rule, you are directly affecting people’s lives. And that’s a huge responsibility.”

The motion approved by the council Monday revises an earlier range of options approved back in October that called for chum caps ranging from a minimum of 200,000 chum to as many as 550,000 annually, angering tribes who felt that their recommendations for a lower limit had been ignored.

[Western Alaska tribes, outraged by bycatch, turn up the heat on fishery managers and trawlers]

The Monday action, which still includes 550,000 chum as the highest potential cap, will be sent to council staff for impact studies. Then, at a future meeting, the council’s voting members will select a preferred alternative.

Pollock, which is made into frozen fillets, surimi paste and other products, is the biggest-volume fishery in North America. It is pursued by a fleet of trawlers, some of which include below-deck factories and others that deliver to shore-based or floating processors in a harvest that last year tallied more than 2 billion pounds.

Most of the pollock fleet is based in Seattle, though their catch supports processing plant jobs and tax revenue in Alaska. And nonprofits representing Western Alaska communities within 50 miles of the Bering Sea control catch shares to more than 35% of this pollock harvest, and spin off financial benefits to residents.

Scientists cite maritime heat waves, which are forecast to intensify amid climate change, as contributing to the decline of the chum as well as chinook runs. Grappling with big restrictions on their own harvests, Western Alaska residents are incensed by the trawl fleet’s bycatch of chum salmon, and demanded that it be curbed to help restore beleaguered runs.

In the Bering Sea, during the summer months, chum often intermingle with huge schools of pollock. Currently the trawl fleet has no restrictions on the total number they can collectively catch, though they try to avoid these salmon.

[A struggle to dodge salmon in pursuit of a massive pollock bounty]

During the 2023 season, the fleet scooped up 111,698 chum, all of which — once documented by federally contracted observers — were required to be discarded or donated to charity. Genetic analysis by federal fishery scientists indicated that more than half of these fish originated from northeast Asia, where Russia has greatly expanded hatchery operations. An estimated 8.3% — or 9,246 fish — were from Western Alaska drainages, including the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, according to the analysis submitted to the federal fishery council.

The Coastal Villages Region Fund factory trawler Northern Hawk fishes for Alaska pollock in the Bering Sea during the summer of 2023.

The pollock fleet’s chum take has had huge annual fluctuations, ranging during the past 13 years from a low of 22,172 in 2011 to a high of 545,901 in 2021. On average, some 15.4% of the chum catch by the trawl fleets has been of Western Alaska origin, according to the estimates developed through the federal genetic analysis of a sampling of these fish.

The fishery council that’s considering restrictions on the fleet’s chum catch is a mix of federal, state, industry and other appointed representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon. The council is charged under federal law with developing harvest rules for the 200-mile offshore zone of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska — a process typically strung out over many months of meetings.

Council actions, once finalized, then go through a federal review, and then are enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Within the past few years, tribal organizations have sought to dramatically increase Western Alaska participation in a council public comment process long dominated by the fishing industry.

Prior to the Monday vote, 100 people signed up to testify while others submitted written remarks. Many Western Alaskans offered emotional, at times tearful, accounts of the wrenching cultural impacts from the long-term collapse in chinook salmon runs along with the more recent declines in chum salmon returns.

Both fish are staple subsistence species in a region cut off from Alaska’s road system where store-bought groceries command steep prices.

“The last time that I fished on the Yukon River was 2017. We took 25 salmon to feed two families with grandchildren, children and us as grandparents,” said Theresa Clark, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. “We felt really guilty taking that salmon because we already knew that salmon was … going away.”

There had been friction in past council meetings, with some tribal representatives rankled by a lack of respect shown to some of the Native leaders who testified. During this meeting, council members often praised the tribal testimony, and some elders were able to testify well beyond their allotted time slots.

“The encouraging thing is that there appears to be more room for communication between industry, tribal representatives, council members and council staff that can make meetings more productive,” said Eva Burk, a Nenana Native Council member who in January was appointed to the fishery council’s advisory panel.

Baker, the Alaska Fish and Game representative on the council, agreed. One criticism made by tribal advocates that resonated with her, she added, was about the limited scope of the council process — how it’s economically driven and only has jurisdiction over federal waters.

“Some of us on the council are finally starting to understand: The holistic view in Alaska Native culture is not how the system is set up,” she said. “But it is the system that we have, and that we have to work within.”

Along with the lower chum salmon cap option, the council also came up with other changes to the initial set of alternatives approved in October. They included a proposal to establish — from June 10 to Aug. 31 — a Bering Sea chum corridor in areas where higher concentrations of Western Alaska-bound salmon have been caught in years past. The corridor could have a separate cap set at below 100,000, and if reached would be placed off limits to the trawl fleet for the rest of the summer season.

There also are hopes that technological advances could eventually help reduce the pollock fleet’s take of Western Alaska salmon. The fishery council heard testimony about a plan that would speed up the genetic testing of fish to determine in days — rather than months later — the origins of the chum salmon brought aboard trawlers. Efforts also are underway to develop a system that would enable skippers to release fish through a kind of escape hatch when underwater cameras indicate that chum salmon are swimming into a net.

LW note: The trawl sector has been touting gear tests being done in big flume tanks in Newfoundland for decades. I attended a NOAA/Trawl presentation in Kodiak in the late 1980s about such tests and several more since then. Old news with little results in Alaska.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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