The most iconic Alaska fish is in puzzling decline, and the mission for both state and federal fisheries managers is to spread the pain as evenly as possible.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously on April 11 to pass an amended package of chum and chinook salmon bycatch avoidance measures, including reductions in the performance standards and hard caps for chinook bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in years of low in-river abundance.
The cuts of 25 percent and 30 percent for the pollock industry’s performance standard and hard caps struck a middle ground that was too much for one group and not enough for the other.
Fleet participants who sign incentive plan agreements, or IPAs, are currently allocated a percentage of 60,000 chinook salmon, which is the “hard cap.” Those who opt out of IPAs receive a bycatch allocation from the “performance standard” of 47,591. If the fleet as a whole exceeds the hard cap of 60,000 salmon in any two of seven years, the bycatch limit reverts to the lower number, the performance standard, for all participants.
The council’s unanimous decision was to reduce the hard cap from 60,000 to 45,000, and the performance standard from 47,591 to 33,318 in low abundance years.
Low abundance will be defined as less than 250,000 salmon in a three-river index of run reconstructions on the Upper Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Unalakleet rivers stock groupings. In the pollock season following such a year, the bycatch reductions will be enacted.
Western Alaska subsistence users from the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim villages, squeezed by record-low chinook runs, pleaded for cuts up to 60 percent. The pollock industry, already doggedly working to reduce its chinook bycatch levels, bucked at cuts altogether.
Council gave support for the final amended motion only after a lengthy and contentious amendment-making process with a split vote, emotional public comment, and fractious Advisory Panel recommendation.
The original motion, proposed by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, would have reduced the hard cap from 60,000 to 40,000 and the performance standard from 47,591 to 31,000. Council member Bill Tweit, a Washington representative, introduced an amendment to raise the hard cap to 45,000 and the performance standard to 33,318.
An amendment to Tweit’s amendment, introduced by Duncan Fields of Kodiak, would have lowered the performance standard to 31,000.
Fields’ amendment failed 4-6, with Simon Kinneen recused for conflict of interest. Kinneen is the vice president and quota and acquisitions manager of Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., one of the six Western Alaska Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups that earns the majority of its income from the Bering Sea pollock harvest.
Alaska representatives Cotten, chairman Dan Hull, Fields, and David Long voted in favor of Fields’ amendment. Glenn Merrill, Tweit, Roy Hyder, Craig Cross, and Kenny Down voted against joined by Alaska sportfishing representative Ed Dersham.
Tweit’s amendment passed 6-4 along the same lines as Fields’ failed amendment.
The final amended package passed 10-0.
“I think we’re setting great precedent here setting bycatch relative to years of low abundance,” Fields said. “This is a huge gain not only for Western Alaska but for the pollock industry in terms of the huge cuts that could have been undertaken.”
Despite council optimism, neither the pollock industry nor advocates for Western Alaska villages were pleased with the final motion.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats. “That handful of fish is extremely important, but it’s going to come at the cost of the 30 to 40 boats.”
“This is better than status quo, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” said Becca Robbins Gisclair, senior fisheries policy advisor for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and also the chair of the council Advisory Panel. “It still allows for 45,000 chinook salmon to be killed as bycatch, and any year when there’s no subsistence fishing and we’re not making escapement goals, that doesn’t provide enough protection.”
The regulation and AP motion
The council voted to reduce the hard bycatch cap from 60,000 to 45,000 chinook salmon and the performance standard from 47,591 to 33,318 chinook salmon in years of low abundance.
The action will eliminate Amendment 84 of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fishery management plan and fold chum bycatch avoidance measures into Amendment 91, which currently governs chinook salmon bycatch for the Bering Sea pollock fleet.
The existing incentive plan agreements, or IPAs, will require restrictions or penalties for vessels who fish consistently higher levels of chinook bycatch relative to other vessels. Vessels must all enter a fishery-wide bycatch data sharing agreement.
Vessels will be required to use salmon excluder devices during the “A” season from Jan. 20 to March 31, and from Sept. 1 until the end of the “B” season on Oct. 31.
A rolling hotspot closure program will be required for both seasons. Salmon savings credits will last for a maximum of three years. Restrictions will be undertaken to assure that October chinook bycatch is not higher than other months.
In passing the reductions, the council disregarded Advisory Panel, or AP, recommendation, which included other alternatives but not the reductions in the performance standard and hard cap.
AP debate on the measure was narrowly divided over whether to pass a recommendation to the council that included bycatch cap reductions. The original motion only included changes to incentive plan agreements and season date changes.
During deliberation, AP panel member Chuck McCallum, executive director of the Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, introduced an amendment to add the cuts back into the motion. The panel’s opinion was sharply divided between concern for subsistence villages and an acknowledgement that the pollock industry’s effect on in-river salmon abundance is not as sizable as previously thought.
The primary causes of the dip in chinook stocks are not fully understood by state or federal biologists. Once thought to be a major contributing factor, the pollock fleet’s chinook bycatch has been minimal in recent years.
According to council analysis, at the current pollock fleet chinook bycatch level of 15,000, the impact to the Y-K region’s waterways is only 2 percent. The potential discomfort for the pollock fleet, to some, is simply not worth such a low rate of return for the villages, a theme that industry proponents reiterated consistently through the council process.
“We’ve got to follow the science, and the science says cap reductions don’t help that river system,” said panel member Mitch Kilborn, with whom several other members agreed.
The amendment failed on a 9-11 vote. The final motion, gutted of bycatch cap reductions, passed 12-8. Andy Mezirow, recently nominated by Gov. Bill Walker to replace Ed Dersham on the North Pacific council following Dersham’s term expiration in July 2015, “reluctantly” voted in favor of the amendment and against the final motion’s action.
Ben Stevens, executive director of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, testified before the AP that every single fish matters. Stevens said he thought the panel’s decision amounted to a legitimate moral failure.
“If Grandma on the river can’t get one fish, I find it offensive to be talking about bycatch of 40,000,” Stevens said. “I can’t even understand their way of thinking.”
No kings for the villages
The pollock industry’s chinook bycatch grates Western Alaska villagers, who feel like they’re losing an age-old cultural lynchpin as fewer king salmon end up on dinner tables and entire seasons are closed off to fishing.
“Does the life, culture, and tradition of one group of people have to die for another group to make a lot of money?” Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, asked the council. “The trawl industry and CDQ groups are interested in the bottom line, while the Tribes are interested in putting food on the table.”
Naneng was one of a dozen villagers who traveled from Y-K villages to tell the council about the limp king nets and general inaccessibility of grocery stores that are depressing the villages’ dietary needs.
“People are living on Top Ramen,” said Tim Smith of the Nome Fishermen’s Association. “So many people leave the village because they can’t survive there, but it’s hard to live (in Anchorage) and they end up broke and coming back to the village worse off than before. It happens all over the world when industrial societies push out hunter-gatherer societies. I expect a lot of better from the United States and the state of Alaska.”
“We do appreciate industry effort,” said Gail Vick, former executive director of the Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, “but we’re paying a cost disproportionate to the industry. In these areas, 30 percent of your diet is salmon. Despite what you hear about the 2 percent figure, in the river we’re counting fish by the one.”
Several reminded the council that the federal government has a trust responsibility to subsistence groups to preserve the lifestyle, as provided for in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA. Some Tribal representatives even suggested the pollock industry undertake a one-year moratorium on its fishery to help stocks recover.
Currently, Y-K area villages are pushing for the Federal Subsistence Board to take over management of salmon stocks on both rivers to provide for subsistence users and establish an intertribal commission to co-manage the resource with state and federal management bodies.
Declining runs of Y-K chinooks have been troublesome for years now as king salmon stocks in Western Alaska have plummeted to historic lows. On the Kuskokwim, total run estimates for kings in 2010, 2012, and 2013 are the lowest on record. The preliminary estimate for the 2014 total run of Kuskokwim River chinook salmon is 130,000 fish. While this indicated run size is an improvement over the 2012 and 2013 returns, it is still considerably smaller than the 25-year average run size of 243,000 fish.
The 2015 chinook salmon forecast for the Kuskokwim River is 96,000 to 163,000 fish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has warned that if the run comes back near the low end of that range, both subsistence and escapement goals could fall short.
Subsistence groups have been hurt by the chinook declines and the ensuing conservation measures. The Yukon River has seen similarly low king salmon runs since 2007. ADFG anticipated a record low 2014 chinook run and closed the chinook fishery entirely, although escapement goals were eventually met for the U.S. and Canadian sides of the border.
On March 27, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled against 13 Yup’ik Eskimo fishermen who had been convicted of illegal subsistence fishing on the Kuskokwim during a closed period in the 2012 season. The court declared that conservation for the stock itself trumps subsistence rights.
The pollock industry
The pollock fishery in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, takes substantial, but declining, amounts of chinook and chum salmon. The total Bering Sea chinook bycatch by the pollock fleet in 2014 was 15,031 salmon, far less than the 60,000 fish hard cap and 47,591 performance standard.
For every Western Alaska villager at the council there was an equivalent pollock trawler representative, many of whom were crew and captains, who explained the laborious efforts they undertake to minimize chinook bycatch. Test tows, intensive season planning, the use of salmon excluders, hot spot closures, and strong intrafleet peer pressure all made the pollock industry’s feeling unjustly blamed for a problem they only minimally contribute to.
Even while asking for cap reductions, most advocates acknowledged the accomplishment of the Bering Sea pollock fleet’s strategy under Amendment 91.
“I’d like to applaud the pollock industry’s successes,” said Jeff Kauffman, CDQ representative for the Advisory Panel, immediately preceding support for a bycatch cap reductions.
Fleet bycatch is at it current low level in large part because of the depressed stock itself. Pollock industry representatives worry that reduced bycatch caps will force closures when chinook stocks rebound and crowd the Bering Sea pollock schools.
“The question has been asked, why can’t we reduce?” said Donna Parker of Arctic Storm Management Group. “Because we’re in years of low abundance. In years of high abundance, it’ll shut us down.”
The IPAs are delicate, said other pollock fishers, and lowering the bycatch cap will put undue pressure on the smaller shore-based vessels who don’t have the capacity to travel away from areas of high chinook encounters and will have only a handful of chinook to catch before closures fall into place.
“Hundreds of people in small boats on the Bering Sea will bear that burden,” said the AP’s John Gulver. “Not billionaires, hardworking young men who go on 100-foot boats to try to pay the house off. The 2 percent that gets saved here…to accomplish that margin, we’re going to put a lot of hard-working young men out of work.”
CDQ groups and shoreside processors sided with the pollock fleet.
“Between 65 to 70 percent of our general revenue comes from landing taxes,” said Frank Kelty, natural resources director for the city of Unalaska. “With the lack of revenues the state has, we have no backup for capital projects, school funding. That makes revenues from the fishing industry critically more important. Amendment 91 is working. It’s been doing an incredible job. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to start making major changes.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]