A billion-dollar fishery v. priceless way of life

"The loss of the salmon is not just a food security problem; it is a cultural security problem."

by | October 3, 2023

“Chum salmon are not just a primary food source for Western Alaskans…They are woven into their way of life.”

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Terry Haines, a longtime Kodiak fisherman, produces the weekly Alaska Fisheries Report for KMXT/Kodiak.

In a classic David versus Goliath battle, David could be getting a stone for his sling.

David, in this case, represents Western Alaska communities whose lives and culture are deeply dependent upon chum salmon runs that have crashed in recent years. Goliath is the Bering Sea pollock fishery, among the largest and most lucrative on earth,

and one that supplies the planet with everything from high-end roe to crab-flavored surimi and flaky fish sticks. 

Chum salmon are not just a primary food source for Alaska Native peoples living in Western and Interior Alaska. They are woven into their way of life. The yearly harvest of subsistence salmon brings extended families together at historical fish camps, where they catch, process and store chums while learning skills and traditional knowledge from their elders.

This is where they pass down values like respect, reciprocity and sharing, as well as ancient Indigenous stewardship practices. For them, the loss of the salmon is not just a food security problem; it is a cultural security problem. So the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering implementing chum bycatch caps in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in an effort to get as many chum salmon as possible upriver in Western Alaska. 

Which is not to say bycatch is the reason for the precipitous decline of chums returning to Western Alaska rivers. The culprit is the usual one: the climate. Chum salmon originating from Western Alaska river systems use the Bering Sea as habitat in their first summer at sea as juveniles and then migrate to the Gulf of Alaska for their first winter at sea.

The eastern Bering Sea ecosystem is still roiling from the effects of a prolonged warm phase that started in 2014 and peaked between 2016 and 2019. The warm waters shrunk the extent and duration of sea ice, and most importantly changed the amount and nature of the prey available to young salmon. Fatty copepods that prefer cooler waters were in short supply. Normally a bloom of billions of the plump little mini-shrimp feeds everything else in the Eastern Bering Sea. Their disappearance seems to have shifted the base of the food web, putting less nutritious foods on the chum salmon’s plate. 

As salmon go, chums are relatively lazy and indiscriminate. They prefer to eat what is in front of them. Lately in the Eastern Bering Sea that has been largely things like jellyfish. Jellyfish are not very nutritious, and juvenile chum salmon sampled in the Bering Sea have had significantly lower “energy density” or stored energy than in the past.

This is both because of poor food quality and a higher salmon metabolism brought on by the warmer water. Like birds that must put on fat before migrating, young chum salmon must store energy in the Bering Sea before their trip to the Gulf of Alaska to spend the winter. It is thought that skinny juvenile chums simply didn’t have enough gas in the tank to survive. 

All of which has nothing to do with bycatch of chum salmon in the pollock fishery, of course. But the NPFMC has limited control over the climate. What they can regulate is the amount of chum salmon caught incidentally along with pollock. Conditions have been cooling in the Bering Sea, with the potential for better conditions for juvenile chum salmon. The Council is feeling pressure to help as many spawning chums as possible reach western rivers in an attempt to meet minimum escapement levels.     


                                              The 341 foot Northern Hawk owned by CDQ group Coastal Villages Region Fund

The wholesale value of the Bering Sea pollock fishery was $1.5 billion and $1.4 billion in 2021 and 2022, respectively. It targets pre-spawning pollock for their roe in the A season, which extends into early to mid-April. The B season fishery focuses on targeting pollock for filet and surimi markets, and the fleet harvests most of the B season catch during June through early October.

It is during the B season that chum are mostly taken. Chum salmon move from the Bering Sea basin up onto the shelf to feast on baby pollock at the same time the B season is happening in the same place. The chum salmon often show up on the grounds in large pulses that can be hard to predict, or avoid. This is one of the reasons the amount of chum salmon taken as bycatch has varied greatly from year to year, from a low of 13,243 chum salmon in 2010 to a high of 702,535 chum salmon in 2005. Since 1991 the annual average level of chum salmon bycatch over this period has been 187,501.

Another variable is the proportion of bycatch chums that were ultimately heading to western Alaska rivers. In the years since 2011, when they implemented a comprehensive genetic monitoring program, 17.7% of the chums caught as bycatch in pollock nets were from Coastal Western Alaska and the Upper/Middle Yukon. The majority of chum salmon caught as bycatch is of Asian origin.  

As the NPFMC refines its alternatives and options for a possible hard cap on chum salmon bycatch for Bering Sea pollock they will have to balance a billion-dollar fishery with a way of life that is priceless.    

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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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