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Pollock, salmon catchers clash over bycatch

December 19th, 2014 | By Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

Severe declines closed chinook salmon fishing on the Yukon River this year, and further steps to keep the big fish out of Bering Sea trawl nets are under consideration by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The pollock B season dates could be shortened, with early potential ending dates of Sept. 15, Oct. 1 or Oct. 15. The season now remains open until November, although many boats stop fishing earlier. Changing the dates is among the options the fish council decided to review next year, at its meeting last week in Anchorage.

Yukon River fishermen from both the U.S. and Canada told the council of their hardships, and requested stronger action against the trawlers.

At the river's far reaches in Canada's Yukon Territory, the decline of chinooks has prompted the Native community of Teslin to fly in a different species of salmon from Juneau, in southeast Alaska, to preserve the tradition of cutting and smoking fish for the winter.

A Taku River sockeye salmon isn't quite the same as the larger chinook, or king, salmon, but it's the next best thing under depressed circumstances, and that way the younger generation will still learn about salmon, according to the presentation of Cora Lee Johns and Betsy Jackson.

And a Yukon fisherman from Alaska told the council that he hopes he isn't forced to pass down traditional knowledge by showing his children photos of salmon from Southeast Alaska.

Numerous Yukon River representatives testified before the fish council, members of the Yukon River Panel, a transboundary group organized under a chinook salmon treaty between the two countries. They met at the same time in the same hotel, the Anchorage Hilton, according to panel coordinator and state Fish and Game subsistence official Hazel Nelson. She said the panel itself took no position, but that she scheduled the meeting to allow the Yukon fishermen access to the council process.

Rebecca Robbins Gisclair of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association said the hard cap maximum chinook bycatch number is viewed with outrage by river fishermen not allowed to catch a single king. "The inequity between the two numbers is very stark," she said, comparing the 60,000 maximum to a "red cape in front of a bull."

Bering Sea trawl advocates said they're working hard to prevent bycatch, and said stricter measures could have severe economic consequences on the fishing industry and pollock dependent communities like Unalaska.

"The biggest reduction in salmon bycatch has probably occurred," said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At Sea Processors Association, representing pollock factory trawlers. The public shouldn't expect dramatic reductions, although efforts may be made to "nibble around the edges," she said.

United Catcher Boats, the catcher vessel lobbying group, reported spending big money trying to keep salmon out of trawl nets with costly, specially-constructed net openings called excluders. John Gruver of UCB said excluder prices range from $13,500 to $18,000 citing Swan Net's prices. And the larger factory trawler salmon excluders are even costlier, he testified.

Gruver said about 75 percent of the pollock catcher boats have nets with salmon excluders, and that figure will likely increase to 100 percent. One exception is the pumper trawler Chelsea K, though research is underway to develop excluders for that Westward Seafoods vessel's unique system.

Unalaska city natural resources analyst Frank Kelty said the town could suffer "major impacts" if salmon restrictions closed the pollock fishery early. He said the city is on the hook for tens of millions of dollars of federally-mandated water and sewer projects. He said the city's finances depend not only on fish taxes but also city sales taxes, most of which are derived from fuel sold to fishing boats.

"Shouldn't Unalaska be willing to share a little bit of the conservation burden?"

Kelty was asked by council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak. And while salmon restrictions add to the pollock fleet's costs when it moves around to avoid salmon, Fields wondered, isn't that helpful to Unalaska's revenues, by boosting fuel sales and thus city tax revenues? Kelty admitted he was "between a rock and a hard spot" on the marine fuel issue.

During studies of chinook salmon earlier in the year, four river systems with ample data on king runs were analyzed, the Yukon and Kuskokwim, Nushagak and Unalakleet. But going forward, the Nushagak will be dropped from the study because it doesn't have the same problems. In some years, the Nushagak has had king salmon runs greater than the other three rivers combined, according to fish council scientist Diana Stram. In contrast, of the four rivers, the Yukon and Kuskokwim contributed 80 percent of the subsistence chinook harvest. The Nushagak, in Bristol Bay, is more heavily used by commercial fishermen, though it also supports subsistence fisheries.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.

 

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