Western Alaska tribes, outraged by bycatch, turn up the heat on fishery managers and trawlers

The years-long debate is taking on increasing urgency, as subsistence harvesting bans continue and the policy responses under consideration threaten to impose steep costs on industry.

Western Alaska tribes, outraged by bycatch, turn up the heat on fishery managers and trawlers
Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s advisory panel listen to testimony from a tribal leader in Anchorage this week. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

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It’s been three years since a crash in king salmon populations forced an outright ban on fishing for them in the Yukon River. And barring an unexpected recovery, residents along the river won’t be allowed to fish for them again for at least seven more years, under a new international management scheme recently signed by Alaska and Canadian managers.

Earlier this spring, Maurice McGinty, a tribal leader from the village of Nulato, pulled out his last mason jar of smoked Yukon king.

“We have no more now,” said McGinty, 80. He added: “They are pushing us, and our traditional way of life, into a hole.”

Imagine hearing and reading versions of McGinty’s story dozens of times, told by Indigenous people who live along the Yukon and another iconic subsistence river in Southwest Alaska, the Kuskokwim.

Maurice McGinty speaks at a public meeting in Anchorage earlier this week. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

That’s the reality this week for the policymakers on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal commission that regulates commercial fishing in the American waters of the Bering Sea.

Over the next few days, the council faces the latest in a series of painful choices.

On one side are tribal leaders from the Yukon and Kuskokwim, who offer gut-wrenching testimony to the council on the cultural losses inflicted on them by the absence of salmon — from empty summer fish camps to barren cupboards that have to be filled with expensive groceries shipped in from the road system.

They have pleaded for a crackdown on the largely Seattle-based trawl fleet, whose boats drag wide-mouthed nets through the water that target another species called pollock, but can also accidentally swallow thousands of salmon — what’s known as “bycatch.”

On the other side are representatives for the trawlers, who generally support tighter bycatch management but say some of the measures favored by tribes could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars — while giving only a tiny boost to the number of salmon returning to Western Alaska rivers. Trawlers’ monetary losses would also land directly on some Yukon and Kuskokwim Native communities, which, through federal catch-share and nonprofit programs, benefit from profits from the pollock harvest.

This complicated fight has been playing out for more than a decade, first in response to declines in king salmon and more recently as chum salmon, a second species, also crashed.

But as this week’s council meeting begins, the debate has taken on increasing urgency for participants, as subsistence harvesting bans persist and the responses under consideration by the council threaten to impose steep costs on industry, according to a federal analysis.

“We’re really concerned about an action that would have a severe economic impact,” said Glenn Merrill, director of government affairs at a trawl company called Glacier Fish.

Changing landscape

The trawl industry has fished in the Bering Sea for decades, and it currently harvests more than 2 billion pounds of pollock each year — a $1.5 billion wholesale value. The fish are shipped across the U.S. and around the world, and processed into products like fish sticks, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and surimi, the paste used to make fake crab.

Salmon bycatch makes up a minuscule fraction of trawlers’ harvest — a single king for every 700,000 pounds of pollock, in the case of one vessel. But the huge scale of the pollock harvest means that the bycatch numbers still add up to tens of thousands of kings, and hundreds of thousands of chum.

Alaska pollock (National Marine Fisheries Service)

The trawl industry is contending with an increasingly organized anti-bycatch movement fueled by social media and led by the tribes. In recent years, tribal leaders have gained allies and a bigger voice at the fishery council, which oversees the pollock harvest.

In 2022, Alaska voters elected Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who campaigned on an anti-bycatch platform. There are now three Indigenous members on a separate panel that advises council members, and last month, Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee nominated a tribal ally, Becca Robbins-Gisclair, to fill a council seat that was previously held by a trawl company representative.

“There's a huge recognition that wasn't there before of the importance of what the tribes bring to the process,” said Linda Behnken, a longtime participant at council meetings and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

The pollock fleet is also making new efforts to get its side of the story out.

The traditionally press-averse industry has, in recent weeks, hired a strategic communications firm, and it’s debuted social media accounts touting its contributions to Alaska’s economy and skippers’ efforts to avoid salmon bycatch.

“The social media and communications landscape have changed a lot,” said Merrill. “And I think a lot of folks are appreciating that change and trying to do a better job of engaging with it.”

“Tough nut to crack”

The council has been regulating Bering Sea salmon bycatch since the mid-1990s, according to a recent federal analysis, with more aggressive management starting in 2011, when the council imposed a strict limit on the bycatch of kings. The pollock fishery would be closed if a certain number of kings were caught.

While Western Alaska king populations had been declining over that time, regulation of chum bycatch has been less strict, without a hard cap. Instead, the pollock industry manages chum avoidance through voluntary legal contracts agreed to by fishing companies and approved by federal regulators.

Those contracts call for data sharing, rolling closures of areas where there’s high bycatch and special area limits on boats that catch salmon at higher rates.

The council began revisiting that system after dramatic declines in Western Alaska chum returns began in 2020. The crash forced river system managers — separate from the federal council — to impose bans and limits on chum harvests in Yukon and Kuskokwim villages where salmon are an essential subsistence food, and where fishing for kings had already been tightly restricted.

At this week’s council meeting, members are reviewing multiple chum bycatch management options, ranging from no action to strict yearly caps to adding new provisions to the pollock fleet’s voluntary legal contracts. A final decision won’t come until a later meeting, but the council could refine or adjust the different options under consideration.

Tribal leaders are pushing for a hard cap on chum bycatch, like the one that already exists for king salmon. But they also say that the council should examine a lower annual limit than 200,000, which is the most aggressive chum bycatch cap currently under consideration.

Tribal leaders from Interior Alaska villages including Nulato, Anvik and Nenana listen to this week’s meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

That request, to study a lower limit, has also been endorsed by the Biden administration, which sent a letter to the council saying that a limit lower than 200,000 is likely achievable and that a failure to study it could risk the courts rejecting the council’s final decision.

The pollock industry has been catching some 315,000 chums a year over the past decade — though in 2023, amid increasing scrutiny of their management measures, that number fell to 112,000.

“The salmon crisis is decades in the making, and a lower (chum) limit for a sustained period of time is necessary to be effective,” Karma Ulvi, the chair of a Yukon River tribal fishery commission, wrote in her formal comment letter to the council.

Trawl representatives say that their voluntary legal contracts have helped reduce both king and chum salmon bycatch, and that they’re more adaptable and effective than the options pushed by tribal leaders. They describe hard caps as blunt tools that are unlikely to achieve what the tribes are pushing for: more salmon returning to Western Alaska rivers.

That’s because genetic analysis shows that a little more than half the chums swallowed by trawl nets aren’t actually Western Alaska salmon — they’re salmon that came from Russian and Asian hatcheries, which have sharply increased their releases in recent years.

Western Alaska fish, on average, make up just 19% of trawlers’ chum bycatch. And industry officials say that a cap that doesn’t distinguish between those areas of origin could actually push their boats into areas where they’re catching Yukon and Kuskokwim fish at higher rates, even if the total number of chum is lower.

“Six out of 10 fish that we catch are…Putin fish,” Brent Paine, a trawl industry official, told the council’s advisory panel this week. “How do we deal with trying to minimize Western Alaska chum when, primarily, the species that’s out there is from foreign hatchery production? That’s a real tough nut to crack.”

Crew members shovel pollock aboard a Bering Sea trawler during a 2019 fishing trip. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Trawlers also point to research that says warming ocean waters are the primary drivers of chum declines, and say that the council should carefully balance potential economic harm from fishing restrictions against what they describe as a limited boost to Yukon and Kuskokwim salmon returns from reducing bycatch.

The council’s analysts say that so far, they lack the data to offer confident estimates of exactly how much bycatch reductions would translate into increased returns to those river systems.

But a trawl industry trade group ran its own analysis that says on average, the pollock fleet’s bycatch rate represents no more than 1.2% of the chum that are counted returning to spawn in Western Alaska rivers, including the Yukon and Kuskokwim.

“The tradeoffs here are huge, if you get the wrong preferred alternative going through the council,” Paine said.

The tribes have a ready response to arguments that the effects of bycatch on spawning numbers are small: Every salmon counts, particularly when the tribes face full fishery closures along the rivers.

Tribal leaders from Alaska’s Interior wore these jackets to this week’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council meting. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

“They’re talking moratorium, seven years, Yukon River. Well, what about the high seas?” McGinty, the tribal leader from Nulato, asked at a public meeting Wednesday hosted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “What kind of punishment are they getting for making all the money and starving us?”

“Pitted against each other”

The conflict playing out over chum bycatch, however, is not black and white, with tribal subsistence fishermen on one side and pollock industry executives on the other.

Alaska Natives are on both sides of the issue, through a program known as the Community Development Quota, or CDQ. That system, launched by the council and approved by Congress in the 1990s, set aside a share of the Bering Sea’s lucrative fishing quotas, including pollock, to newly formed nonprofits charged with benefiting coastal Alaska Native communities.

Those six nonprofits have grown into economic and political forces, collectively earning, on average, $150 million in yearly wholesale pollock revenue — with profits reinvested in rural jobs and internships, loan programs and scholarships.

CDQ executives warn that harsher restrictions on trawlers could affect those kinds of benefit programs.

“We want to make sure that we’re taking the right action, and that it’s not going to harm the communities that rely on us,” said Merrill, whose employer, Glacier Fish, is controlled by a Nome-based CDQ nonprofit.

But the tribal leaders pushing for reduced bycatch see things differently.

Only communities within 50 miles of the Bering Sea coast are eligible to participate in the CDQ programs, which means that residents farther up the Yukon and Kuskokwim see none of their benefits.

“It’s hard to fight against your own people,” said Rob Sanderson Jr., a tribal leader from Southeast Alaska and veteran of the council process. “We’re pitted against each other.”

Tribal advocates describe the inherent tension sparked by the CDQ program as one of an array of obstacles they face in navigating the government systems for managing Alaska fish and game — including at the council level.

Council meetings stretch for days and are typically held in cities or hub communities like Anchorage, Seattle or Sitka, forcing rural tribal leaders to either tune in remotely or take multiple flights to participate in person.

Craig Chythlook, a Yup’ik fisherman and advocate from Bristol Bay who’s helping organize tribal testimony this week, said he spent days going through the council’s new 373-page, jargon-packed draft analysis of the details and impacts of the different chum bycatch management measures. A separate social impact analysis was another 200 pages.

Craig Chythlook listens to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

“There’s so much emphasis on modeling and process, looking at single species, and very rigid self-appointed objectivity — where the only way to make a lot of this modeling work is through subjectivity,” Chythlook said. “It’s gaslighting our own Indigenous brilliance.”

But in their testimony this week, most tribal leaders are dispensing with the technical details to demand action and deliver deeply personal messages about loss. And it’s resonating with decisionmakers, even if some are skeptical that reducing chum bycatch will meaningfully boost Yukon and Kuskokwim salmon returns.

“We know people are suffering because of poor salmon returns,” said Andy Mezirow, one of the state of Alaska’s representatives to the council. “The struggle has been to measure loss of economic value against culture.”

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