A fish wheel on the Yukon River in 2012. (Flickr photo/Joseph)

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 decided to approach the problem more methodically.

In a unanimous vote near the end of its five-day meeting in Sitka (6-13-22), 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,” said Vivian Korthuis, chief executive officer for the Association of Village Council Presidents.

The AVCP is 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. North Pacific Fishery Management 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,” she said, “and parents and grandparents who are unable to pass our way of life down to our children and future grandchildren.”

The salmon collapse may be a cultural crisis, but it’s also quantifiable.

“I normally put away 2,000 chum salmon to feed my dog team,” said Mike Williams, Sr. “Last year I caught only two.”

Williams 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 pollock trawlers – 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 not every salmon caught by pollock fisheries is bound for Western Alaska,” he said. “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… 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,” Madsen said. “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 the dial doesn’t have the ability to address all the variables that we have heard today that 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,” Behnken said. “The people of the AYK (Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim) 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 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?” she asked Behnken. “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’s certainly a lower carbon footprint when you have the kind of mass of fish that’s being harvested in the pollock fishery,” Behnken observed, “but it is a system that doesn’t localize that access. And 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 pollock 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-Kuskokwim region, the motion included language to incorporate more traditional knowledge into the decision-making process in the future.