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Fishery council seeks more information before deciding on chum bycatch in Bering Sea pollock fishery

The Northern Eagle docked in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in July 2020.
Hope McKenney
The Bering Sea pollock fleet has been at the center of the western Alaska salmon debate.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages federal fisheries in Alaska, will continue to explore options for how to manage chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

The council, facing rising pressure from western Alaska communities who depend on chum as a cornerstone of subsistence, released a statement Wednesday summarizing their decision from their April meeting.

Dismal western Alaska salmon returns have reached crisis levels. And while the council listened to scores of harrowing testimonies recalling empty rivers and vacant fish camps, the council was also presented with research that suggested bycatch limits wouldn’t do much to help the crisis.

“Available science indicates recent declines in chum salmon populations across many regions of the North Pacific, including Canada, Japan, Russia, Korea, and the U.S., appear to be driven by warmer water temperatures in both the marine and freshwater environments,” the council said in the statement.

The importance of climate change isn’t lost on those advocating for bycatch limits. But climate solutions are far away and abstract, while controlling how many salmon are scooped up by trawlers seems a simpler problem to solve.

The Ocean Conservancy, a national nonprofit that signed on in support of western Alaska tribes, said in a written testimony they acknowledge that warming oceans were driving the salmon emergency, but “while there are many factors contributing to the declines, bycatch is a known … stressor that can be controlled and minimized.”

“It's been framed as this trade off of sorts between pollock fishing and subsistence, but that feels like a false choice,” said Luke Fanning, CEO of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, a regional nonprofit that fishes pollock in the Bering Sea.

APCIDA focuses on economic development programs for half a dozen coastal communities along the Bering coast. The organization is part of the Community Development Quota Program, a federal initiative that allocates a percentage of fishing quota for Native communities in western Alaska.

While it’s true that a large percentage of the pollock fleet is based out of state, nearly a third of the Bering Sea pollock quota is fished by the western Alaska CDQ program.

“We're very concerned about the subsistence needs of coastal Alaska communities,” Fanning said. “But we also have to consider the efficacy of the solutions being proposed and find a way to navigate through this because our communities in western Alaska are also very dependent on this fishery.”

The council considered several options to manage bycatch, including a hard cap on how many chum can be accidentally caught or regulating where the pollock fleet can fish during salmon season.

The council did not adopt any of the options, and instead revised them for further review, which is expected in late 2024 or early 2025.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.