Federal fisheries managers voted June 8 in Juneau to put a 7,500-fish limit on Chinook salmon bycatch by some 60 bottom trawlers harvesting flatfish, rockfish and Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska.
The action during the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council still needs approval from Commerce Secretary John Bryson, and there will be a public comment period, so when the new limit will go into effect is still uncertain.
The Chinook, prized by all salmon harvesters, has been on the decline in abundance and harvests for more than 50 years in Alaska, and on the entire Pacific coast.
National Marine Fisheries Service is required by law to the extent possible to minimize bycatch, and minimize the mortality of bycatch that cannot be avoided.
“Overall, it is a good thing,” said Jon Warrenchuk, a senior scientist for the environmental organization Oceana, based in Juneau. “Not catching salmon will be the first thing on the trawlers’ minds, or they will risk being shut down for the season. It will force these guys to work together, share information, maybe tow shorter distances,” said Warrenchuk, whose organization had advocated for a Chinook salmon bycatch cap of 5,000 fish.
But Julie Bonney, executive director of the Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak, said that from a trawl perspective “it is going to be very painful. We’re looking at between $28 million and $40 million in economic loss, assuming the fleet can’t change its behavior,” she said. That loss would hit hard at Kodiak, with the residential processing labor force seeing the biggest impact, she said.
What would have been better, she said, would be to have individual vessel accountability, stop the race for fish and build a cooperative system.
“Basically there is nothing the vessels can do. We will hit the cap and will get shut down,” she said. “From a fleet perspective, it is scary as hell because there are so many kings on the grounds right now. It’s pain for no gain,” she said. “I am sympathetic to what is happening to other resource users for king salmon, but this is not going to solve the problem.”
Salmon in the Gulf of Alaska come from over 100 river systems, the bulk of them in the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, but there is no science to know which rivers are hit hardest, Bonney said. “We do know there is no presence of western Alaska stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, so we are not affecting those river systems at all.”
The decline in king salmon runs statewide has been a matter of growing concern for Alaska’s commercial, sport and subsistence harvesters. Salmon harvesters’ concern mounted extensively in 2010 when the number of king salmon caught incidentally to the Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries reached 54,449 fish. In 2011, the incidental harvest was 20,769 fish and in 2012 the number was 5,909, according to statistics provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Last August, the limits on Chinook salmon bycatch for pollock trawlers went into effect, with a 25,000 Chinook salmon limit. That rule also required that all Chinook salmon caught by pollock trawlers be delivered to a processing facility where an observer could count the number of salmon and collect scientific data or biological samples.