The minute a chinook salmon shows up in a Bering Sea pollock net, the entire fishery should be shut down, says a recent resolution by the Yukon Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, a coalition of 70 Indigenous governments spread along the Yukon River.
“As soon as they start catching chinook salmon, shut her down,” said Carl Sydney, the council’s Yukon regional board chair.
If implemented, the measure would effectively terminate the $1-billion Bering Sea Alaska pollock fishery.
“I’m surprised, because it doesn’t end up being a position you can take seriously,” said John Gruver, a manager with United Catcher Boats, a US-based coalition of Pacific Ocean fishing vessels.
Sydney said he was confident that the fishery could be shut down.
“Somebody’s gotta have some conscience over there,” said Sydney.
“We’ll see, anyway,” he added.
Every year, an average of 82,000 chinook have been caught in the nets of Alaskan pollock fishers.
In 2007, chinook bycatch reached an all-time high of 120,000.
Of those, approximately 12,000 chinook were of Canadian origin.
Yukon River fishers have seen devastating declines in the chinook population over the last few years – but not all of it can be chalked up to bycatch, said Gretchen Harrington, a sustainable fisheries co-ordinator with the US National Marine Fisheries Service.
“(Bycatch) is a factor, but it’s definitely not the sole cause of the decline,” she said.
Dropping chinook numbers could be due to “a variety of factors including ocean survival, disease, bycatch, or other unknown factors,” wrote Alaska Governor Sean Parnell in an August 7 release.
Less than eight per cent of pollock bycatch is of Canadian origin, said study documents released by Alaska’s North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Salmon from Bristol Bay, the Kuskoquim River, Cook Inlet, Southeast Alaska and even Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula find their way into pollock nets.
Sydney said he thinks Canadian-origin salmon constitute 25 per cent.
“You could pretty much say a quarter of all that fish is Canadian origin,” said Sydney.
Alaska has four salmon tributaries. Divide the bycatch by four, and that’s the effect on each river, said Sydney.
As for Russian-origin salmon: “I don’t think so,” he said.
The Bering Sea pollock fishery often touts itself as one of the “cleanest” fisheries in the world.
The pollock fishery discards 0.5 per cent of its total catch.
Other fisheries discard up to 25 per cent discard of their total catch, said the At-Sea Processor’s Association website.
Still, the fishery deals in such high volumes of pollock that small bycatch margins quickly translate into hundreds of tons of wasted fish.
Earlier this month, Parnell petitioned United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to declare the Yukon River a fishery “disaster.”
If approved, the declaration could set up Yukon River salmon fishers with millions of dollars in federal relief.
The no-bycatch resolution is similarly aimed at Locke.
Shut down the pollock fishery, or face years of humanitarian crisis along the Yukon River.
“Ultimately, they’re going to have to pay the price monetarily,” said Sydney.
“They’re calling for a disaster over there, and somebody’s going to have to help them out,” he said.
The council cited “severe restrictions” on aboriginal salmon harvesters in prompting the resolution.
In 2008, Yukon First Nations were asked to reduce their salmon harvest by 50 per cent.
This year, Alaska’s subsistence fishers (a classification that includes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers) had their legal fishing “windows” cut by half..
Alaskan subsistence fishers caught 24,400 chinook.
Shutting down the pollock fleet wouldn’t be a “responsible answer” to the bycatch problem, said Gruver.
The closure would be “devastating” on western Alaskan communities.
“You’re talking thousands and thousands of people instantly out of work at a time when that’s not a good thing,” said Gruver.
The pollock fishery has largely operated free from regulation, although for the past few years, pollock vessels have been barred from particularly “salmon-rich” areas.
In April, Alaska regulators slapped pollock vessels with a bycatch limit of 68,000 chinook per year.
The regulations won’t take effect until 2011.
At the time, many along the Yukon River had been calling for a bycatch cap of 30,000.
“Industry is doing a lot, and probably doesn’t get credit for that,” said Gruver.
The no-bycatch resolution, made at the council’s biennial summit held just north of Whitehorse, was passed mainly by Canadian representatives.
“There wasn’t many people from Alaska at the Yukon Inter-tribal Watershed Council,”
By adopting such an uncompromising position, the council threatens to derail more than two years of bycatch negotiations, said Gruver.
In response to the resolution, Locke could ask Alaska regulators to completely review their bycatch policy.
“That delays any action for a considerable amount of time,” said Gruver.
“I guess (the council) figures when negotiating that you start at the lowest point you can and then go up,” he said.
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