Alaskan fishing groups and tribes welcome changes to federal fishery guidelines

Kuskokwim River

Fishing groups and tribes in the U.S. state of Alaska are eyeing potential updates to federal fishing guidelines as a chance to change how several hallmark fisheries in the state are regulated.

Last week, NOAA Fisheries issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, welcoming public input on a number of topics, including climate change, equity in the representation of local fishing communities, and trawl bycatch. The agency will be accepting public comments offering suggestions on how to improve national standards to address those issues until 12 September, 2023.

In a joint announcement, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, SalmonState, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA), The Boat Company, and DeepStrike Sportfishing claimed that current NOAA Fisheries policies favor industrial trawlers over local fishing communities, and they hoped a new rulemaking process would tip the scales in their favor.

“We’ve seen multiple species of salmon dramatically decline on the Kuskokwim in recent decades, including chinook and chum salmon, both of which are caught as bycatch by the Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet,” Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Kevin Whitworth said. “These declines are devastating for our communities and our ways of life, and they’re happening in part because marine managers at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries do not equitably consider our traditional foods or our Tribes when making decisions about pollock allocation. Revising these national standards may bring the change we need to see in fisheries management to protect our salmon and cultures.” 

Climate change is acknowledged as a major reason for the decline in several Alaskan fisheries, but some groups claim the massive amount of bycatch produced by industrial pollock trawling has further damaged already limited stocks. While the Alaskan salmon, snow crab, Bristol Bay red king crab, and other fisheries have faced complete shutdowns in recent years, the trawling fleet has caught 141 million pounds of those same species annually on average as bycatch, according to the Alaska fishing groups.

“NOAA’s announcement is a long-awaited opportunity for the tens of thousands of Alaskans affected by trawl bycatch to finally be heard,” SalmonState Outreach Director Melanie Brown said in a press release.

Pollock-trawling firms have responded to the criticism by pointing out that less than 10 percent of their chum salmon bycatch originated in western Alaska. Instead, most of the salmon bycatch comes from foreign hatcheries.

On 10 April, Alaska tribal leaders from the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers regions sued the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court, alleging that the pollock fleet’s salmon bycatch had depleted the population and prevented tribes from partaking in subsistence fishing. The tribal leaders are demanding the service review groundfish catch limits in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands to address their concerns.

Alaska's 2023 commercial salmon season just kicked off on Copper River last week, but subsistence salmon fishing has already been shut down in one area of Alaska. Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered Alaska to stop subsistence fishing on the Kuskokwim River.

“Just last week, [the Alaska Department of] Fish and Game shut down subsistence fishing for king salmon on the lower section of the Yukon River for the third year running. Things aren’t looking any better for the upper Yukon or for the Kuskokwim,” Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association Director Karen Gillis said. “It is unacceptable and unjust that Indigenous Alaskans’ smokehouses and fish camps will remain empty while the pollock trawl fleet continues to bycatch tens of thousands of wild salmon originating from depleted western Alaskan lakes, rivers, and streams. Bering Sea fishermen and fishing communities are seeing the effects of climate change and poor pollock fleet management firsthand.”

On 13 April, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council declined to set a hard cap on the pollock fleet’s chum salmon bycatch.

“This council seems to be prioritizing profits for the pollock fishery over all other interests,” SalmonState Executive Director Tim Bristol said at the time.

“For us, a hard cap is just a knee-jerk reaction,” United Catcher Boats Executive Director Brent Paine said, noting that most of the salmon bycatch comes from foreign hatcheries. “Council has good genetic information. They have been collecting DNA samples. We know what the stream of origin is.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it had allocated USD 220 million (EUR 204 million) in fishery disaster relief to the U.S. states of Washington and Alaska for several fishery disasters that took place from 2020 to 2023, including multiple salmon fisheries in Alaska.

“Fishery disasters have devastating effects on local communities and our blue economy,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said. “This disaster funding provides much needed assistance to our fishing industry and we will work with the affected communities to begin the difficult work of helping them recover.”

The funding will be distributed by NOAA Fisheries in coordination with local governments, and projects must be related to fishery disasters relief, such as infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, or to help people find new jobs. NOAA Fisheries will cooperate with local governments to administer the money.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Joseph from Cabin On The Road


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