Alaskan pollock fisherman accidentally caught 130,000 chinook salmon last year.
About 25,000 of those fish were destined to return to the Yukon River.
The record “bycatch” coincided with an extremely low salmon return in the Yukon River last year.
“This has been a growing problem since 2002 when we signed the Yukon River Salmon agreement,” said Gerry Couture, a member of the Yukon Salmon Committee in the Yukon River Panel.
“Since that time, the system of managing the pollock fishery has changed and bycatches have grown.
“But this past year they were tremendous.”
That probably translates to 25,000 salmon that would eventually return to the Yukon River.
“But that doesn’t mean 25,000 fish that would have entered the river this year,” said Couture.
“Some of those fish are very young, some are mature.
“But if a bycatch like that remains in place over several years then it does start to affect what is coming back into the river in any one year.”
And it’s been getting worse and worse.
Before the change in the pollock industry in 2002, the salmon bycatch was around 20,000, said Couture.
“Last year, the bycatch was in the area of about 100,000 salmon.”
Only 24,000 chinook salmon are estimated to have passed the Alaska-Yukon border last year.
The low numbers closed commercial and domestic chinook salmon fisheries.
Recreational fishing was allowed, but only under a catch-and-release order.
Aboriginal fisheries pulled 5,000 salmon from Yukon rivers.
The US North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is considering several options to decrease the bycatch, said the council’s fishery management plan co-ordinator Diana Stram.
Most of the options involve caps.
The fishery could use trigger caps, which means that after a certain limit of bycatch is reached an area is shut down.
Fixed caps would close areas where salmon are known to be at certain times of the year.
And a hard cap that actually closes the entire fishery for the season could also be used.
Another option is to modify nets with a salmon excluder that allows faster swimming salmon to escape.
Frank Quinn, the Canadian co-chair of the Yukon River Panel, likes the idea of a hard cap.
“The panel has recommended a cap of 37,000 which addresses the levels of bycatch before the agreement was signed in 2002,” said Quinn.
“I believe the bycatch was around 40,000 in 2002.”
Couture also wants to see the pollock fishery hard-capped at 2002 levels.
However, many in the pollock industry have said such a low cap would be devastating to the fishery.
The pollock fishermen did not sell the salmon for economic gain, said Stram.
It’s illegal to allow the fish to enter commerce.
Instead, some of the bycatch was given to local food banks.
Others were simply dumped.
The US federal government has reacted with a reduction in the pollock quota.
Instead of 130 million metric tonnes of pollock a year, the quota has been reduced to 100 million metric tonnes.
It’s a 26 per cent reduction.
“From the point of view of salmon that’s a positive move,” said Couture.
“Whether it will be enough is really questionable.”