Alaska’s commercial fishermen have been speaking out against big trawlers for years, complaining that the large vessels in federal waters are scooping up mature and juvenile fish. The regional council that manages federal fisheries recently heard from hundreds concerned about the number of salmon and other species that end up as bycatch in trawl nets.
For Alaska’s troll fleet, king salmon is their money fish. In state waters, small crews on these 40-to-50-foot boats — or on even small skiffs — will catch a fish at a time, and it’s worth it: chinook salmon can fetch $6 a pound from a processor.
But there’s another big-money fish in Alaska: Pollock. It’s the white fish found in a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish or an imitation crab stick. And the factory trawlers that ply the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in search of pollock and other groundfish scoop up chinook salmon and other species in their wide nets.
Federal fisheries data shows trawlers in the North Pacific took about a tenth of the chinook — or king salmon — caught by Alaska’s commercial salmon fleet last year. And those numbers are tracking the same this year. But none of that catch happens on purpose.
Preliminary ADF&G data shows about 263,000 kings were commercially harvested last year statewide. As of April 15, bycatch in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska areas for 2021 was around 16,000 fish, over six percent of last year’s statewide commercial harvest. Last year’s trawler bycatch was 26,000 kings, or about a tenth of the 2020 commercial chinook harvest in-state.
The trawlers can’t keep or sell the kings. Those salmon are bycatch and have to be donated or thrown overboard.
Lexi Hackett is a Sitka-based troller. She says the waste of the industrial trawl fleet is a black eye on Alaska’s other well-managed and sustainable fisheries.
“I’m sitting here and trying to explain sustainability of fisheries — Alaska seafood, and Alaska sustainability, and how we have this great managed system up here,” Hackett said. “And of course, there’s always going to be room for improvement. But for me, the big elephant in the room is this kind of mismanaged, wasteful bycatch issue with trawlers that happens. And honestly, it’s just unacceptable.”
This isn’t a new issue. But recently the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages federal fisheries, invited testimony on the issue of bycatch. Hundreds of fishermen, industry workers, and Native people and organizations from around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska wrote and called in over three days of this month’s meeting.
By nature, trawl fisheries incidentally catch all kinds of species — salmon, herring and halibut, to name a few. It’s a tiny proportion of what they catch — roughly 1% according to NOAA Fisheries — but trawlers harvest such massive volumes that it’s an issue. Especially for species like chinook salmon, which are by far the most threatened.
Becca Robbins Gisclair, the director of Arctic Programs at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, says commercial and subsistence harvests of kings in Alaska have been dropping for years.
“Fifteen years ago, when I was first working on the Yukon River and we were first having these conversations about salmon bycatch, you could buy Yukon chinook salmon in a grocery store — there were marketing campaigns to try to expand those markets,” Robbins Gisclair testified to the council. “Now the idea of buying a Yukon chinook salmon in a grocery store in Washington seems as bizarre as hugging someone outside of your household.”
There are a variety of federal measures already in place to try and reduce wasted bycatch. One is what’s called the “Mothership Salmon Savings Incentive Plan Agreement” (MSSIP). It basically allows some flexibility in bycatch limits for processors and fleets by letting them earn credits for minimizing bycatch. Those credits can then be used in later years to take even more when industry analysts say bycatch is less avoidable.
Some in the industry say that’s a good system.
“The incentives are clearly forcing the fleet to fish in the same general areas of lowest chinook bycatch,” said Austin Estabrooks. He’s with the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents some of the largest factory trawlers.
But others associated with groundfish and pollock trawl fisheries in Alaska point out that rolling closures and strict bycatch limits can be, well, limiting. In the vast expanses of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, the places trawlers need to avoid can vary wildly year to year. Last year, the winter savings area of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fishing area closed — a stretch of water the size of Maryland.
“It’s a huge problem to manage bycatch when you have mandatory closure areas for other species or other reasons,” explained John Gruver, the intercoop manager for United Catcher Boats, a fishing trade association.
Many of those who testified to the council noted the destructive impacts on subsistence fisheries. Rural Alaskans, many of them in Native communities, rely on this to feed their people.
“The continued waste of salmon and halibut in the federal fisheries at the current levels are unacceptable, and action must be taken to reduce bycatch,” said Mellisa Johnson. She’s the executive director of the Bering Sea Elders Group, a tribal association from 39 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bering Strait regions.
“Our elders have always taught us not to waste our different food sources, whether they be birds, different greens from the land, berries, and, most importantly, a lot of us throughout the state of Alaska and into the Lower 48 and other areas around the world can we all can relate about a type of fish,” Johnson said.
Raychelle Daniel is Yup’ik, and an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts. She said she appreciates what has already been done by the industry and council to reduce bycatch, but she still sees a glaring hole in the discussion — formal invitations to Native people and organizations to share their ways of knowing.
“To gain a deeper understanding about the issue, you should also invite Indigenous organizations and regional management bodies to share more information, not only to gain a better understanding about what food security and cultural perspectives mean, but about observations and measures that people are taking to conserve salmon,” she told the council.
Members of the powerful North Pacific Fishery Management Council say they’re listening.
Council member Andy Mezirow says he hopes to get a formal report that can shed light on this issue that puts it in plain terms that anyone can understand.
“Not for the average person with a Master’s degree in marine biology, because I think we’re seeing a lot of engagement on this issue,” he said. “And I think the more public can understand the good work that’s being done to figure out how many — where these salmon are coming from, and the impact on the exact streams that they’re worried about, the more informed the public is, the better they’ll become aware of the extraordinary efforts that we’re making to try to figure out the impacts on these communities.”
After hearing public testimony and invited presentations, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council formally requested more information on where salmon would have been returning if they hadn’t been bycatch, as well as updated information to update matrices that correlate salmon length to age — another vital part of determining the total impact of bycatch to Alaska’s chinook salmon populations.