On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines:
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey previews the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, Dan Bross from KUAC previews the Yukon salmon run, KYUK’s Anna Rose MacArthur reports of a letter from the north asking Area M fishermen to stand down in June, and Kirsten Dobroth of KMXT tells the tale of a bottom survey.
North Pacific Fishery Management Council Preview
ROBERT WOOLSEY KCAW
The bycatch of chinook and chum salmon is on the agenda, as the spring meeting of the North Pacific Management Council gets underway in Sitka this week (June 9-14).
In addition to hearing how much salmon is being intercepted in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea by the trawl fisheries, the council will review a proposal to supplement the human observer program with electronic monitoring.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council regulates the so-called “federal fisheries” which take place outside the three-mile limit of Alaska’s state waters, and within the exclusive economic zone of the United States which extends 200 miles offshore.
Strictly by the numbers, that’s dozens of different species of bottomfish and crab, and the council will divide its time over five days among many of them. But the headline issues – as determined by the number of comments the council has received – are the bycatch of salmon by the trawl fleet in the Bering Sea and in the Gulf of Alaska, and the related issue of Electronic Monitoring, or the installation of cameras aboard trawlers to ensure compliance with existing bycatch reporting methods.
Salmon bycatch has come to the forefront in recent years due to steep declines in chinook stocks in many of Alaska’s major river systems, and severe cutbacks in opportunities for subsistence, sport, and commercial fisheries in many areas of Alaska. Among the stack of comments on the issue, the Council has received a letter from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Western Interior Alaska, Eastern Interior Alaska, and Seward Peninsula Subsistence Regional Advisory Councils requesting a significant reduction in the chinook and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea commercial fisheries. The groups want to see the bycatch cap of kings reduced from 45,000 to 16,000, and the cap of chum salmon reduced from 500,000 to 250,000.
For others, that’s not enough. The Sitka Fish & Game Regional Advisory Council last October took strong position against halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska; one of the authors of the Sitka letter, Eric Jordan, doesn’t mince words in his latest comments regarding salmon bycatch: “To me the issue isn’t bycatch,” Jordan writes, “Trawling is not an acceptable way to harvest fish and like salmon traps and high seas salmon traps it must be prohibited area by area starting with halibut nurseries and crab savings grounds.”
Regardless of whether it lowers the cap on salmon bycatch during its Sitka meeting, the Council will consider how to better enforce the existing cap. Since 2020 some trawl vessels have been equipped with Electronic Monitoring – or EM. The Electronic Monitoring systems aren’t intended for “catch accounting,” or to identify and record every salmon caught in a trawl net; rather, EM is intended for compliance monitoring when the catch is offloaded at a processor. Comments to the Council overwhelmingly support adopting EM, but for two: One, a fisheries observer, argued that EM greatly increased the workload for herself and her colleagues who sampled fish at processors. A second commenter said simply, “Don’t put 100% cameras on our trawlers, it will be game over for the trawl fleet. The council shouldn’t bow to a group of whiners that are too lazy to move to better fishing.”
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meets in Sitka through June 14. Links to follow the meeting on Zoom or YouTube can be found on the Council’s website. https://www.npfmc.org/upcoming-council-meetings/
Dan Bross KUAC
Efforts to assess this year’s Yukon River chinook and summer chum salmon returns are just getting underway on the lower river. Speaking during the season’s first Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association weekly teleconference yesterday (Tues), Alaska Department of Fish and Game summer season management biologist Deena Jallen (JAL-en) said Pilot Station sonar counting and sample fishing began June first. “And to date as far as I know they haven’t gotten any salmon in their test nets, so all their counts are for non-salmon species.”
Jallen added that drift and set net test fishing at other lower river locations are also so far not catching many salmon. “So far we haven’t gotten any chum or kings in the drift gill net, and we started picking up just a few kings in the Big Eddy set net starting on June 5th.”
High water and driftwood are impeding both the sonar count and test fishing. Meanwhile, a wildfire in the St. Mary’s area has forced suspension of a US Fish and Wildlife Service run salmon assessment project.
Last year’s Yukon River chinook and summer chum runs came in very weak and both returns are forecast to be poor again this summer.
Area M Letter
Anna Rose MacArthur KYUK
Thirteen organizations representing subsistence and commercial salmon fishermen in Western Alaska have signed a joint letter intended to protect chum salmon. The letter asks a fishery along the coast of the Alaska Peninsula to shut down during the month of June to prevent it from harvesting Chum salmon bound for Western Alaska rivers. Chum salmon stocks crashed to record lows last year, and the letter writers fear that another low return this summer could push the chum past the point of recovery.
There are many theories about why the Chum crashed. One of the most talked about on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers is that the salmon are being intercepted by commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea.
Thirteen fishing and tribal organizations are asking a group of those fishermen to voluntarily forgo harvesting salmon during the month of June. These fishermen are along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain, in a place called Area M. The purse seiner fishery targets Sockeye salmon, but incidentally intercepts Chum as well.
Last June, this fishery harvested over 1-point-1 million [1,168,601] Chum salmon. Genetic data from 2007 to 2009 shows, in some areas, the majority of Chum caught in this fishery were heading towards Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Arctic rivers.
Karen Gillis is the Executive Director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. She wrote the letter to the purse seiners, and acknowledges that a voluntary shutdown would economically hurt their fishery. But she believes it’s a necessary sacrifice. “What we see is that they’re feeding their families based on their commercial catches. And the people in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions are not able to feed their families at all. So it’s a compromise”
Yukon River fishermen could not harvest any salmon last year. Runs were too low. The average year once saw millions of Chum return to the Yukon, but last year only about 255-thousand returned. On the Kuskokwim, many fishermen reported catching only two or three Chum all season. Chum on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim did not meet escapement goals, and runs are expected to be low again this year.
Gillis and her fellow co-signers on the letter believe this summer is critical for the species’ survival. “We believe that if the Chum that are passing through the Area M Fishery aren’t able to make it to the spawning grounds again, it would be hard to imagine a recovery at that point.”
The letter is addressed to the Area M Seiners Association. The association’s president [Kiley Thompson] told KYUK that the group had no comment on the letter.
The letter is signed by leaders at the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the Association of Village Council Presidents, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Calista Corporation, Coastal Village Region Fund, Kawerak, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government, Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.
Another letter has been sent to the state [Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner] asking it to act to protect Chum salmon if the purse seiner fleet does not shut down.
This letter is signed by the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang responded to the letter, saying that –quote—“much effort is underway to reduce the harvest” of Chum bound for Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers in the peninsula fishery. He plans to release more information on those efforts next week.
Kirsten Dobroth KMXT
A group of researchers is hoping that data collected from Gulf of Alaska’s sea floor will shed new light on the environmental effects of bottom trawling.
Scientists from the conservation group Oceana which is based in Juneau spent eight days aboard a research vessel circumnavigating the Kodiak archipelago late last month.
Jon Warrenchuk is a senior scientist and fisheries campaign manager with Oceana.
“The Gulf of Alaska is a very special place and a very productive ecosystem. Our timing of our survey here in the spring means we saw just an abundance of life, from the phytoplankton to the fish to the birds feeding at the surface.”
The focus of the trip, though, was documenting life at the very bottom of the sea to better understand the impacts of commercial trawling, according to Warrenchuk.
The group surveyed 23 locations during the trip. He says the group sent cameras and remotely operated vehicles down to depths more than a thousand feet deep at some sites – and photographed areas of the seafloor that had never been seen before. “We chose sites to explore that were both open and closed to bottom trawling and we did see differences between those types of sites.”
Warrenchuk says researchers documented coral gardens and groves of sea whips. But the group also saw evidence of heavy damage to the ocean floor, including areas of crushed coral where commercial trawling is permitted.
Warrenchuck says they don’t know what those areas of the sea floor looked like before trawlers arrived.
But they’re planning to submit their observations to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service – they’re in the midst of an essential fish habitat management review process [web: that’s completed every five years] for the area.
And Warrenchuck hopes the photos and videos from the waters off Kodiak will help make the case to keep trawlers out of some areas of the ocean.
“So much of the ocean has remained unexplored that any information we gather on seafloor habitat characterization, locations of sensitive habitat that will only help us make better fishery management decisions going forward.”
The Essential Fish Habitat summary report is slated to come out in October, according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s website.