The Scientific and Statistical Committee of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council hears a report on salmon abundance on June 8, 2022, prior to the June 9 start of the full Council meeting. (KCAW/Woolsey)

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.

Note: Find links to the Council’s agenda and meeting livestream here.

The North Pacific Fishery 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 Fishery Management Council meets in Sitka through June 14.