On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines:
BYCATCH ROBERT WOOLSEY KCAW
Despite hours of testimony from residents living along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers who called for urgent action to curb the bycatch of chinook and chum salmon in the Bering Sea trawl fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council last week (6-13-22) decided to approach the problem more methodically.
In a unanimous vote near the end of its five-day meeting in Sitka, the Council recommended further study of salmon declines in the Bering Sea, and a closer look at their connection to climate change.
When you look at the bar graphs of salmon abundance in the Yukon River, the third-largest river in North America, you do a double-take. The graphs are scaled to millions, and the bars, which show peaks and valleys over the years, just disappear in 2020 and 2021.
The forecast is no better this season.
“At this point, there should be alarm bells going off all over not only in our communities, but all over the state and federal government agencies.”
Vivian Korthuis is the chief executive officer for the Association of Village Council Presidents, a consortium of 56 federally-recognized tribes on the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. Among the region’s 27,000 residents, Korthius said 98-percent of households harvested salmon. Council meetings typically involve hours of presentations on the scientific research into stock decline, but Korthius pointed out a glaring oversight.
“What your reports don’t show are the families in western Alaska who are worrying about putting fish away to feed their children throughout the winter. And parents and grandparents who are unable to pass our way of life down to our children and future grandchildren.
I normally put away 2000 chum salmon to feed my dog team. Last year I caught only two chums.”
Mike Williams, Sr., is from Akiak. He chairs the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Commission, which represents 33 tribes in the Kuskokwim River drainage. The salmon collapse is nearly as dire on the Kuskokwim. Williams was discouraged that the pollock trawl fleet – so far this year – had already caught and discarded 5,100 chinook salmon, and last year caught and discarded 540,000 chum. He said, “The waste of a single fish is unjust for Indigenous fishermen.”
Nevertheless, Williams recognized that the problem was complex.
“We understand that is not every salmon caught by Pollack fisheries bound for Western and Alaska. We understand that other factors like climate change, and competition with hatchery fish have impacts on our salmon in their marine environment. But we know that this council has the power to enact regulations, and plans to reduce salmon bycatch.”
Thirty-seven people signed up to testify before the council on the issue, by far and away most of them urging the council to reduce the amount of allowable bycatch of chinook and chum salmon by the pollock fleet. But it was clear from reports about conditions in the Bering Sea, that although the bycatch numbers are significant, they’re still a fraction of the overall decline in salmon.
Stephanie Madsen, the director of the At-Sea Processors Association, sympathized with the crisis faced by the villagers of Western Alaska. But she suggested that it was a mistake to pin the blame on trawlers, if at all.
“I understand from public testimony and reality that it really is at this time, the only thing that is controllable, you can put your hand on the dial and you can turn it down and and hope that there will be an impact to those that are in crisis. But Mr. Chairman, I’m concerned that although we are controllable, that that dial doesn’t have the ability to address all the variables that we have heard today that are appear to be causing the decline, climate change. The lack of food competition with the hatchery fish.”
Madsen argued that the decline in salmon was a coast-wide issue, and that if the Council took steps to reduce the incidental catch of salmon by trawlers, and the results were “not what folks are hoping for, …disappointment will continue.”
The effort to play down the significance of trawl bycatch did not sit well with representatives of other fishing industry sectors who testified on the issue. Sitka resident, and former Council member, Linda Behnken is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
She felt it was the Council’s responsibility to address the disproportionate impact of the salmon collapse.
“Clearly, the way we’re inhabiting this planet is unsustainable, that people have the AYP minimally participate in that unsustainable culture, but they’re bearing the brunt right now of those impacts in Alaska.”
Behnken was a key figure in working to ban trawling off the coast of Southeast Alaska. She didn’t believe that trawling – although an important provider of protein to the world – was in any way sustainable, even when Council member Anne Vanderhoeven, who works for the Seattle-based Arctic Storm Management Group, argued the point that trawling was environmentally friendly.
“Are you familiar with the peer reviewed lifecycle assessment of the Pollock fishery that was released last year showing it was one of the lowest carbon footprints of any protein both land based and marine based granted, it may be higher than a local subsistence fishermen. But compared to other fisheries?”
Behnken’s answer may not have been the concession that Vanderhoeven was looking for.
“Yes, there certainly At a lower carbon footprint when you have the kind of massive fish that’s being harvested in the Pollock fishery, but it is a system that doesn’t localize that access, and what we’re seeing with what I’m hearing with people I’m working with, throughout the state, we’ve done a lot of seafood distributions in the last few years to communities in need. And what those people want is their local foods. I mean, you can send them Pollack and say it’s a low carbon footprint, but it doesn’t meet their need. It doesn’t meet their culture, it doesn’t meet their connections to that place. So I guess that’s what I’m just asking you to think about.”
Given the intensity of the feelings around bycatch, the motion brought forward by the Council’s Advisory Panel was tepid. Advocates hoped to see the allowable bycatch of chinook cut from 45,000 to 16,000; they wanted the bycatch of chum halved from 500,000 to 250,000. Instead, they got an extensive document that boiled down to this, as introduced by Rachel Baker, of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game:
“The Council commits to continued improvements in bycatch, with the goal of minimizing bycatch at all levels of salmon and public abundance.”
There was also a call for further research to tease out whether lowering the current caps on the trawl bycatch of chinook and chum would make any difference at all to the recovery of the stocks in Western, Alaska. And, as a concession to the many affected residents who testified from Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokim region, the motion included language to incorporate more traditional knowledge into the decision-making process in the future.
LOW COUNTS FOR YUKON CHUMS OLIVIA EBERTZ KYUK
Chum salmon counts are lower than ever this year in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Tuesday that this summer has seen the lowest ever summer chum runs as of this date on the Yukon River. That’s according to a sonar at Pilot Station. [Web The sonar has counted 843 summer chum salmon, which ADF&G says is below the median of 1,737 fish as of June 21.] The department says Chinook counts are well below average too.
And on the Kuskokwim, the department says this year’s chum run is tracking nearly identically to last year’s record lows.
On Tuesday residents along the Yukon river gathered on a weekly teleconference where residents and managers discuss salmon. Basil Larson, a fisherman in Russian Mission said fish camps are looking even more neglected this year than last year.
“All the fish camps you know grasses are grown in.”
State and Federal managers have closed the entire lower Yukon river to Chinook and chum fishing. Larson says many residents aren’t interested in non-salmon species.
“There’s nobody’s even hardly trying.”
Most who are targeting white fish have dog teams. And many lower river residents don’t own the gear required to fish right now. That’s according to Alberta Walker from Anvik. She says residents feel like they’re missing out.
“Fishermen wish there was fishing.”
Though residents are not allowed to target salmon, if they accidentally catch and kill a Chinook or chum in 4-inch mesh, they can keep it. Residents are allowed to keep pinks and sockeyes.
State and Federal managers have announced Chinook and chum closures for the middle and upper rivers too. Each section closes before salmon arrive. That effectively cancels subsistence fishing for the species this summer. The entire river is set to be closed by the end of June through August.
UCIDA WIN SABINE POUX KDLL
Cook Inlet drift fishermen can fish the federal waters of the inlet this summer after all.
That’s after a district court judge Tuesday shot down a federal rule that would have closed a large part of the inlet to commercial salmon fishing — which fishermen said would have been a death knell for the fishery and the 500 drift permit-holders who fish there.
One of those permit-holders is Erik Huebsch [HIB-schh], of Kasilof. He’s vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which filed the suit. And he says he’s pleased.
“Opening the EEZ is vital to the fleet. Without opening the EEZ, the drift fishery is really not viable. That’s where we go to catch fish.”
The EEZ is the inlet’s exclusive economic zone. And it’s the federal waters that start three nautical miles offshore, south of Kalgin Island.
For years, management of that EEZ fell to the state. But in 2013, UCIDA filed a lawsuit in an effort to have more oversight from the federal government.
The courts sided with UCIDA, and the council that manages fishing in federal waters was tasked with drafting a new salmon management plan.
But the state told the council it wasn’t interested in co-managing the fishery with the feds. Ultimately, the plan the council went with was to close that part of the inlet to commercial salmon fishing entirely.
That sparked another lawsuit. Cook Inlet drift fishermen argued that a closure does not count as a management plan.
In Tuesday’s decision, Judge Joshua Kindred largely agreed with the fishermen.
He said the federal closure was arbitrary and capricious and that the closure did not comply with national standards — including that it was based on political compromise and not on science. He added the urgency of the impending season meant it was necessary to vacate the rule immediately.
On Wednesday evening, Fish and Game said it would reopen the fishery Thursday.
“Any vessel fishing for salmon in Cook Inlet will be regulated by the State of Alaska under the laws of the State of Alaska,” said Brian Marston, Fish and Game’s area manager for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, in a Wednesday recording.]
Huebsch said the decision verifies that UCIDA’s position on salmon management is the right one.
“This is the second court ruling we’ve had in our favor.”
The state of Alaska was an intervening defendant in the case. Representatives from the Alaska Department of Law and NOAA Fisheries declined to comment on the case.
The cities of Kenai, Homer and Soldotna all filed amicus briefs supporting the fishermen in the suit last year, arguing that the economic impact to their cities if there was a closure would be severe.
Ken Castner, the mayor of Homer, says this week would normally be the opener for this part of the inlet.
And he says those early salmon deliveries are really important.
“We need those deliveries down here, not only for the canneries that operate out of Homer, but also for all the restaurants that kind of stock their refrigerators and freezers with these early Cook Inlet fish.”
An impact statement from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said the federal area made up just under half of the revenue that comes from Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing around $10 million. Homer has the highest average ex-vessel value from that part of the inlet, at about $2,647,402.
“And we really bore the brunt of the economic loss in that displacement of the fishing fleets that are down here. And it’s a very large fleet that fishes out of Homer.
He’s pleased with the court’s decision.
But the judge didn’t side with the plaintiffs on all counts.
Another case, filed by three Cook Inlet drift fishermen by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, was consolidated with the UCIDA case. Those fishermen argued members of the council overstepped their authority and that the composition of the council was formed illegally.
The judge dismissed their argument, saying they could not find enough standing to back up those claims.
The judge also rejected one of UCIDA’s arguments — that the rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the fishermen did not flesh out that argument enough to make a convincing NEPA claim.
Beyond this season, the feds will have to work on a new management plan for the fishery. In his decision, the judge sent the matter back to NOAA Fisheries for next steps.