Chinook bycatch set at 60,000

Alaska pollock fishers will only be allowed to snare 60,000 chinook in their nets during the 2009 season, Alaska regulators announced on Monday afternoon.

Alaska pollock fishers will only be allowed to snare 60,000 chinook in their nets during the 2009 season, Alaska regulators announced on Monday afternoon.

The cap is the first restriction placed on the $1-billion-a-year fishery, which supplies seafood products ranging from McDonald’s Filet ‘O Fish sandwiches to imitation crab.

The announcement was a disappointment for salmon-starved Yukon River villages, who have long called for a cap of no more than 30,000 chinook. Pollock fishers had long been calling for a cap of 68,000.

Monday, Alaska regulators heard from more than 200 delegates jammed into the lobby of the Hilton Anchorage Hotel.

During the winter, several Yupi’k villages, reeling from a dismal salmon season, were forced to accept emergency aid of food and fuel vouchers.

“The dramatic rise in salmon bycatch, especially of chinook salmon, by the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock fishery cannot be allowed to continue to threaten the future sustainability of the Yukon River salmon stocks and the continuation of a subsistence way of life in Interior Alaska,” read a letter submitted to regulators by the Western Interior Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

Pollock fishery representatives at the conference highlighted the Community Development Quota program, a fishery-backed program that creates jobs and provides scholarships to local communities.

Several delegates wore T-shirts bearing the moniker “pollock provides.”

Chinook bycatch went as high as 67,000 in 2005, and reached an all-time high of more than 120,000 in 2007. In 2008, bycatch had dropped to 16,000.

Most fisheries typically maintain a bycatch rate of up to 25 per cent. By comparison, the pollock fishery’s bycatch represents .05 per cent of total catch.

But the vulnerability of chinook, and the sheer volumes of pollock catches, have focused public scorn on the powerful fishery in recent years.

In 2008, only 151,000 chinook made their way into the Yukon River, an amount 36 per cent lower that the most recent five-year average. In contrast, 450,000 salmon had been wasted by pollock fishers over the previous seven years.

Far fewer made their way past the Canadian border.

Canadian officials aimed to get 45,000 salmon into Canadian spawning grounds in 2008. Only 35,000 showed up, despite the blanket suspension of Yukon fisheries and a voluntary reduction in First Nation fisheries of up to 50 per cent.

The 2009 chinook salmon run will be “below average to poor,” according to a recent release by the Yukon River Panel.

“Very conservative” management measures will be needed to ensure that Yukon River chinook even make it over the Canadian border, it said.

The pollock industry pledged to voluntarily keep below a limit of 47,591 bycaught salmon. However, if the voluntary limit was exceeded for any three years out of seven, the 47,591 cap would be made mandatory, said regulators.

The pollock fishery has already drawn up two separate economic incentive plans designed to help fishers adapt to a “cleaner” low-bycatch style of fishing.

Reducing bycatch is often only a matter of technical adaptation on the part of pollock vessels, according to the plans.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com

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