New federal and state reports show that while salmon runs in Alaska in some cases have reached a crisis point that trawlers are catching and discarding more Chinook and chum salmon originating in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river systems than subsistence and direct fishers are allowed to harvest.
The issue of declining salmon stocks remains a complex, multi-faceted one, involving much discussion on topics ranging from trawl bycatch to climate change to the impact of juvenile hatchery fish produced in Alaska, Washington state, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
NOAA Fisheries’ genetic studies of trawl salmon bycatch in 2020 and 2021 released at the end of May determined that 52% of the Chinook bycatch from the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pollock trawl fishery in 2020 included an estimated 16,796 fish originated in coastal Western Alaska, and that the BSAI Pollock trawl fleet caught 51,510 chum salmon originated in Western Alaska and the upper and middle Yukon River in 2021.
In 2020, the NOAA report said, the number of Chinook salmon caught from coastal western Alaska stocks was substantially higher than the 10-year average and represented the second highest catch in the last decade.
The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Pollock trawlers also caught 546,043 chum salmon as bycatch in 2020 alone, NOAA said.
“The burden of conservation is falling on subsistence and commercial salmon fishermen, while factory trawlers are allowed to kill tens of thousands from these same (Yukon and Kuskokwim) river systems,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of fish protection group Salmon State.
Bristol said that NOAA Fisheries Administrator Janet Coit was headed to Sitka for this week’s meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an entity Bristol said, “has been largely deaf to Alaskans’ repeated pleas for reductions in trawl bycatch.”
NOAA Fisheries meanwhile, has developed its first Equity and Environmental Justice Strategy and is taking comments through Aug. 19 online, at webinars, by phone and at in-person meetings.
“The federal and state management bodies are obligated to sustain the continued existence of salmon and our salmon fisheries, and we are begging then to act, said Salmon State campaign strategist Lindsey Bloom, who called the council’s inaction to date indefensible.
Fisheries industry veteran Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik’Pak Fisheries at Emmonek, said that hatchery fish are a larger issue than the bycatch.
When he came to western Alaska in the mid-1970s before the 200-mile limit was enacted, there were Japanese motherships fishing off the coast of Alaska. Bycatch has been going on since after World War Two, but there is less bycatch now than there ever was, he said.
The bigger issue is the millions of hatchery salmon being produced annually by Alaska, Washington state, Japan, Russia and South Korea, Schultheis said.
“Hatchery smolt are twice the size of native smolt when they are released,” Schultheis explained. “Even about 25 years ago there were five billion hatchery fish being dumped into the Bering Sea. All the fish are getting smaller because they can’t get the food they need. Wild fish are being displaced by hatchery fish. This has been an ongoing problem.”