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New Gulf of Alaska king salmon bycatch limits passed by fisheries council

Laurel Andrews
Loren Holmes

An advisory board has proposed clamping down on the king salmon bycatch by non-pollock trawlers working the Gulf of Alaska, a move supporters say will help boost a species in peril and opponents contend could cost commercial fisheries tens of millions of dollars without any guarantee that salmon will benefit.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council met in Juneau this weekend to consider a variety of issues regarding the region’s fisheries. Saturday’s agenda included a decision on whether to limit the chinook salmon bycatch by commerical vessels sweeping the ocean depths for rockfish, flatfish and cod.

Trawlers, conservation groups, salmon fishermen and Native groups all testified before the council delivered its proposed bycatch limit of 7,500 kings per season. Previously, there had been no cap.

Bycatch hot button issue

Restrictions on the king bycatch in the Gulf is a hot-button issue that has been debated for years as the number of kings, also known as chinooks, returning to Alaska rivers declines across the state. Why exactly is a mystery.  

Jon Warrenchuk, senior scientist for the conservation group Oceana, was optimistic the limits would boost salmon returns. “It’s pretty clear that chinook salmon are in trouble,” he said.

With king salmon fisheries being limited or closed along the Gulf of Alaska coast, “the conservation burden can’t just be on the salmon fisherman,” but should also fall on trawlers that haul up thousands of fish a year, he said.

“As people become more concerned about the bycatch of chinook salmon … the issue has been raised fishery by fishery, and region by region,” Warrenchuk said.

In 2010, Chinook salmon bycatch limits were placed on the Bering Sea pollock fleet, which fish in shallower waters. In August 2012, the Gulf of Alaska’s pollock fisheries were given a limit of 25,000 Chinook salmon bycatch limit.

Estimates of the exact number of chinook salmon accidently caught by deep-water trawlers seeking rockfish, flatfish and cod range from about 3,500 to 10,000, varying each season. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that so far this year, more than 9,000 kings have been scooped up as bycatch.

“Since there was no limit before, there was no reason to move out of an area” even if a bottom trawler was catching lots of kings as bycatch, Warrenchuk said. Now, “they’ll need to be thinking about how to not catch salmon, or they’ll be told to stop fishing for the season.”

Oceana pushed for an even-lower limit of 5,000 kings.

Bottom trawlers will also have to retain all salmon they pull up. The salmon will then be counted and analyzed by scientists, who will aim to learn what river system the kings were swimming toward.

Trepidation by trawlers

The proposed bycatch limit was met with trepidation by trawlers.

“We’re very concerned that we can’t meet this higher standard,” said Julie Bonney, executive director the Alaska Ground Fish Data Bank.

Since the limit is for the entire fleet of 40 to 60 vessels, a subsequent “race for fish” could harm commercial vessels -- even those not catching kings. If 60 vessels are fishing, the restriction averages out to 125 kings per vessel even though the restriction applies to the entire fishery, not individual ships. Once the 7,500 king limit is exceeded, the entire fishery would be shut down. 

A better system would be to institute a per-vessel limit, she said.

Warrenchuk agreed limits for individual vessels may be more effective, “so that you don’t have one bad apple impacting everyone.”

Salmon from 100 river systems

Bonney said the agency has built large expectations for reducing salmon bycatch before giving the industry the tools to do so. It’s an emotional issue, she said, but “the actual impact on the salmon stock is not near what people think.”

“The important part in all of this is the salmon bycatch that’s caught in the Gulf of Alaska is not from the Bering Sea,” she said, “so most likely what we’re catching is hatchery fish.”

Salmon in the Gulf of Alaska come from 100 different river systems and without data analyzing where these fish are from, there is no way to understand which rivers are hit hardest. “Until we get more science," Bonney said, "it’s going to be hard to understand what the benefit might be.”

If the bycatch limits force a shutdown of trawlers for a season, that could cost the fleet $27 million annually, she said. Kodiak, the community where Bonney has spent the last 30 years, is in the cross hairs and stands to lose most, she said.

Bonney had sought a bycatch limit of 10,000 king salmon per season.

The council is an advisory body to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), made up of representatives from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, the Department of Fish and Game and NOAA.  Its recommendation will be subject to a public comment period before heading to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. The council's agenda and all supporting documents are available on its website.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com