Chum Salmon Bycatch Issue Draws Gut-Wrenching Testimony from AYK Residents to NPFMC Members

"There is no chum salmon stock assessment done in the Bering Sea, so little is known about origins or migration patterns of the chum caught as bycatch."...So where does the data on the NPFMC/Industry charts on chum origins come from? 

by | October 10, 2023

LW: Council motion “fell short” of what it was asked by most to do, opting for “more analysis” and “genetic studies”

By Peggy Parker/
October 10, 2023

In a rare press release, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council announced “action to minimize chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery” yesterday, but the motion that passed on Sunday fell short of what most of 55 testifiers asked the Council to do. 

Chum salmon incidentally caught by Bering Sea pollock trawlers is one of the most complex issues the nearly 50-year old council has ever faced. There is currently no cap on how much chum salmon may be caught in the fleets’ pursuit of pollock, but chum salmon returns to the Yukon, Kuskokwim and other rivers in Western Alaska have been collapsing at an alarming rate for the past decade. 

One of the reasons the issue is so complex is that the pollock fishery — the nation’s most lucrative –doesn’t catch just Western Alaska chum. Most of the bycatch is hatchery fish from Russia and Japan. Genetic testing for Western Alaska chum can be done, but not quickly enough to change the fishing behavior of the trawl captains. Right now, only special cameras on the head rope of the trawl that distinguish between a pollock and a chum or Chinook salmon, can alert skippers fast enough to haul back and leave the area.

…There are gaps in the science that will take much longer to fill. For instance, there is no chum salmon stock assessment done in the Bering Sea, so little is known about origins or migration patterns of the chum caught as bycatch. 

NPFMC meeting, october 2023

LW ASKS: If there is no chum salmon stock assessment done in the Bering Sea, so little is known about origins or migration patterns of the chum caught as bycatch” — where does the data in the above chart come from??? 

Add to this the cultural divide between the user groups — at least three sectors testified before the council meeting: the pollock fleet, subsistence fishermen many of whom are tribal members living on the rivers in interior Alaska, and the Community Development Quota holders who own interest in the pollock but see the need to protect their members’ way of life.

Alaska’s indigenous stakeholders are participating in the council process more each year. Those who  testify before the panel understand that bycatch reduction would not solve the population crashes they’ve experienced in recent years, but know the numbers in bycatch compared to what is used by subsistence communities. Carrie Stevens, the Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Tribal Governance at the College of Rural and Community Development at the University of Alaska focused on including a floor of zero in the alternatives that will be analyzed this winter. 

“I’d like you to carry forward all the motions but include the impacts of the [Advisory Panel’s] motion of 0-280,000 chums,” Stevens said.

“We are in an eco-system collapse. We’re fighting for your scraps in the rivers. I would like to say that less than 1% of your catch is 100% of ours in river. Also remember that this year alone, the federal government, USDA, has budgeted $60 million worth of Alaska pollock.”

Carrie Stevens, Associate Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Tribal Governance at the College of Rural and Community Development/ University of Alaska

She and others also brought up cumulative effects. “The removal of tens of thousands of chums over decades is not included in the analysis. We don’t look at cumulative numbers — large genetic pools are not making it to the spawning grounds. This is never mentioned. 

“We not just seeing fewer salmon in the river, we’re seeing much smaller fish, more sick fish, more poor-quality meat,” Stevens pointed out. “None of this is discussed. The land is becoming barren. We are seeing wolves taking dogs. We are seeing large mammals starving.  [In villages] we see no eagles. We used to have many eagle’s nests. 

“When it comes to the foreign hatchery fish, we know their impact on our wild salmon; the wild stocks are starving. I believe all these groups would stand with you, council, to go to the state department. We all want solutions.”

Others noted that indigenous knowledge, which is observed, added to by other participants in fishing, hunting, or gathering, and passed down to the next generation for thousands of years, is part of “best available science” The council has taken action to incorporate more Native participants in the Advisory Panel and included more social science analysis sections to be included in economic analysis, but on Sunday took additional action on a motion to approve the LKTKS Protocol “as a living document to provide guidance for identifying, analyzing, and incorporating [it] … into the Council’s decision-making process when there is a clear Federal fisheries nexus.”

The motion also approved a policy on LKTKS that recognizes the “diversity among the people that engage in, depend on, and are impacted by the federal fisheries managed by the Council. Effective fisheries management that supports sustainable fisheries and ecosystems requires robust science and an inclusive decision-making process that fosters relationships and trust.”

That was followed by an 8-item approach that strengthened interaction between indigenous cultures and the council and various ‘on-ramps’ to incorporate them.

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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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