“The federal government’s current fisheries management decisions prioritize maximizing groundfish catch over protecting the subsistence rights of Alaska Native peoples.”
Seattle-based trawlers have joined federal fishery managers against Alaska tribes and environmental groups in a lawsuit that aims to better protect Alaska’s fisheries and marine ecosystems.
At issue is how annual groundfish catch rates are set based on decades-old data that don’t account for off-kilter ecosystem changes.
Alaska environmental groups on November 22 moved to file an amicus brief in US District Court/Alaska to support a lawsuit launched against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Dept. of Commerce in April by two of Alaska’s largest tribal groups – the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Tanana Chiefs Conference which represent nearly 100 federally recognized Tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
Environmental groups joining the lawsuit include the Ocean Conservancy, SalmonState, Native Peoples Action, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. The City of Bethel also joined the lawsuit in June.
The groups are represented in court by the law firm Earthjustice.
“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… The federal government continues its ‘business as usual’ deliberate and ineffective management style as our people suffer and our waters are forever harmed,” said AVCP CEO Vivian Korthuis, in a press release.
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.
The plaintiffs point out that subsistence fishing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions has been severely restricted for over a decade while the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of chum and Chinook salmon as bycatch each year.
Most recently, for example, after several years of “discussion,” the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which makes the rules that are rubberstamped by the NMFS, earlier this year declined to place a hard cap on the hundreds of thousands of chum salmon that trawlers are allowed to discard as bycatch. Instead, they were instructed “to limit bycatch to the lowest level possible.”
“NMFS has failed at every turn to truly manage the natural resources they are responsible to protect…The pollock fleet keeps trawling up salmon and no adjustments have been made to the overall management approach – this must be addressed,” said Brian Ridley, Chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference. “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.”
“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,” the plaintiffs state.
Their 33-page lawsuit claims that when NMFS adopted groundfish catch limits for 2023-2024 recommended by the NPFMC, they unlawfully relied on outdated environmental studies and failed to consider monumental ecosystem-wide changes that have occurred in the Bering Sea regions over the last two decades.
The 2023-2024 groundfish harvest specifications increased the total allowable catch (TAC) for Bering Sea pollock from 1.1 million metric tons in 2022 to 1.3 million metric tons in 2023 (nearly 3 billion pounds) – and recommendations call for a slight increase for 2024.
Bycatch levels for 2024, 2025
In its introduction the lawsuit states: “This action challenges the Defendants’ decision adopting annual catch limits for the groundfish fisheries of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands without conducting an analysis of the environmental effects of that decision in the context of the current environment, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”
In a report done by NMFS in 2023 to determine whether, in its view, any changes in fisheries management or new circumstances require the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement for groundfish harvest specifications, the agency considered updating the 2007 EIS.
But instead, NMFS concluded “that a supplemental environmental impact statement for the 2023-2024 groundfish harvest specifications was not needed because: 1) the harvest specifications are not a substantial change in the action, and 2) there is no information presenting significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns and bearing on the proposed action that is not addressed through the annual stock assessment reports and fishery evaluation reports.”
Seattle trawlers side with feds in brushing off all AK tribal claims
In its response to the lawsuit, NMFS “admits that the ecosystems in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands have experienced change, but denies all “allegations,” claiming that most are “vague and ambiguous.”
It adds: “Federal Defendants therefore lack knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief about the truth of the allegations and deny them on that basis.”
Further, the Defense concludes that “Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which the relief sought can be granted.”
Ultimately, the Alaskan tribal groups and other plaintiffs are asking the federal judge to require NMFS/NPFMC to update the assessments used to set catch limits for federally managed groundfish fisheries.
“If the data is updated, it could result in significant changes to the groundfish fisheries”, said Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover.
Meanwhile, as the lawsuit proceeds, the North Pacific Council – which has exclusive jurisdiction over more than 140 Alaska species in an area encompassing 900,000 square miles – is poised this month to greenlight Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska catches for 2024 and 2025 based on rollovers from previous years.
“For proposed rulemaking for the 2024 and 2025 fishing years, the Council recommended …TACs (Total Allowable Catches), based on a rollover of the existing 2024 specifications for all BSAI and Gulf of Alaska groundfish stocks,” stated an October NPFMC motion. It added: “The Council also recommended PSC (prohibited species catch) limit apportionments for halibut, crab, and herring, and halibut Discard Mortality Rates (DMRs) for 2024 and 2025.” (see above graphs)
Many will argue that goes against the stated position in the North Pacific Council’s Groundfish Management Policy which is “to apply judicious and responsible fisheries management practices, based on sound scientific research and analysis, proactively rather than re-actively, to ensure the sustainability of fishery resources.”