A hard cap on salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery moved closer to reality today. The pollock fishery has been unintentionally catching alarming numbers of Chinook salmon in recent years, peaking at more than 130,000 salmon caught in 2007. To address this growing problem, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is moving forward on setting a limit of 68,392 as the number of Chinook salmon that pollock trawlers are allowed to catch before the fishery is shut down. This cap is contingent on the pollock industry establishing an incentive program that also addresses bycatch on a vessel-by-vessel basis.
In a series of letters and public testimony, Oceana and others have been pushing for the Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to "count, cap and control" bycatch, the unintentional catching and often killing, of non-targeted fish species. While conservationists were pleased the Council is moving forward with setting a cap, they also expressed concerns over the huge numbers of salmon that pollock trawlers will still be allowed to catch, and the continuing delay in getting in-the-water protections.
"This is outrageous. People, particularly those who rely on salmon for subsistence and personal use, have a right to be furious," said Jim Ayers, Vice President for Oceana. "It is unfortunate that we continue to manage for collapse instead of sustainability - that we have to be near calamity before any action is taken to set hard caps and control the wasteful killing of salmon. It is equally disappointing that NMFS is saying they can't do anything until next year at the earliest."
While salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery has been reduced thus far in 2008, it has been an ongoing issue for the last few years. From 2003 to 2006, the number of Chinook salmon hauled up in pollock nets rose steadily from 55,594 to 87,771. 2007 saw that number skyrocket to more than 130,000. To put this 130,000 Chinook salmon in perspective, the number intentionally caught in the entire commercial salmon fishery of Chinook salmon in Alaska in 2007 was around 560,000, and the number of Chinook salmon caught by sport fishermen that same year was only 76,000.
"Salmon stocks are collapsing all over the Pacific, and we have got to start managing for the health of the ecosystem and for what is sustainable for this and future generations," said Jon Warrenchuk, Ocean Scientist for Oceana. "We've invested heavily in protecting salmon habitat and sustainably managing commercial, sport, and subsistence salmon fisheries. We now have to invest in protecting salmon from bycatch as well."
Wild salmon are the lifeblood of Alaska's commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries. According to the Alaska Department of Labor, salmon generate more jobs than any other fishery in Alaska and accounted for 49% of fishing employment by species in 2004.
In some rural communities, particularly in Western Alaska, summer salmon harvests are often the only available source of income. In addition, salmon caught as bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands include stocks from the lower 48 that are the subject of long-standing legal disputes in Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Most of the salmon in question are from the Yukon River, which winds through Alaska and eventually into Canada. Salmon are an important food source and critical to the subsistence way of life for Alaska Native communities along the Yukon River. In addition, due in part to salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery, only an estimated 24,585 Chinook made it to the Canadian border in 2007. This resulted in no commercial fishery, no sport fishery, and limited subsistence harvest from the Canadian side of the Yukon River.
"Salmon are central to the lives of many Alaskans, and critically important to ecosystems and communities along the Yukon River and up and down the Pacific coast," said Warrenchuk. "It is long past time for research, management, and enforcement to truly ensure we count, cap, and control the wasteful bycatch of Chinook salmon."
The alternative identified by the Council includes tasking the pollock industry with establishing an incentive program to reward vessels that fish cleanly and punish vessels that engage in dirty fishing practices. The cap of 68,392 would be for those vessels that agree to participate in this incentive program, while any vessels that do not agree to participate would have to stop fishing after the entire industry catches 32,482 salmon. If the pollock fleet cannot or will not agree to a robust program, the Council recommended a cap of 47,591.
High volume groundfish fisheries like pollock are dominated by a few companies. The majority of fishermen employed by those companies are not Alaska residents: in 2002, 196 non-resident trawl fishermen landed 91% of the 2.7 billion pounds taken in the trawl fishery, earning $220 million. That same year, 4,852 Alaskan salmon fishermen shared $85.2 million.
The Council's preferred alternative will go out for public comment this fall.