Economic plan could protect chinook from pollock fishers

The collapse of the chinook population has forced Alaska to airlift emergency food aid to Yup'ik Inuit villages in the last couple of weeks. The situation is the latest evidence the salmon stocks of the Pacific Northwest...

The collapse of the chinook population has forced Alaska to airlift emergency food aid to Yup’ik Inuit villages in the last couple of weeks.

The situation is the latest evidence the salmon stocks of the Pacific Northwest are in danger.

Since 2003, more than 246,000 dead Alaska and Yukon-bound chinook were tossed overboard as “bycatch” from the Alaska pollock fishery.

But George Sugihara has a plan to save the fish.

The renown California-based biologist and economist suggests reducing the bycatch through a tradable-credit system.

It would punish high-bycatch vessels while rewarding low-bycatch vessels. That will force the industry to self regulate without affecting the yearly pollock catch, he said on Tuesday.

The plan’s “carrot-and-stick” method will eventually cause the industry to adopt “low-bycatch” fishing.

Under Sugihara’s plan, each pollock vessel will be given “credits” to regulate the amount of bycatch it is allowed during a season. Boats that exceed their allowable bycatch will be punished with fewer credits the next season.

More “skilled and experienced” vessels that stay under their bycatch quotas will be rewarded with more bycatch credits in subsequent years.

“If you fish cleanly, you’re always going to be rewarded; if you fish poorly, you’re always going to be penalized,” said Sugihara.

Increased bycatch credits will not be free passes to bycatch at will. Rather, they will function as insurance, said Sugihara.

“The cleaner fishing vessels should not even have to use their credits—because they can fish clean—but they’re always worried about the off-chance that there will be an accident,” he said.

Alaskan regulators have long discussed solving bycatch by slapping pollock fishers with a “hard cap.” Once pollock fishers had hauled up 68,000 chinook in their nets, the entire fishery would be shut down.

A hard cap system is a “bad idea,” because it fails to allow for variations in the chinook population, said Sugihara.

“It penalizes the pollock industry most when the Chinook populations are most abundant and does not protect Chinook when they are least abundant (when Chinook are most vulnerable),” said Sugihara in an e-mail.

In years of low salmon numbers, netted salmon will place a larger strain upon bycatch credits. Conversely, every salmon that is “avoided” will be more valuable to pollock fishers.

Because a hard cap carries no incentive for pollock fishers to fish “cleaner,” the fishery will continue to pull up 68,000 salmon per year, and will lose millions in foregone pollock revenue once the fishery is shut down.

Harnessing market power, Sugihara’s plan will allow the fishery to continue its -billion pollock industry unabated, and provide respite to salmon-starved communities in the Yukon and Alaska.

Promoting conservation by transforming unwanted industrial consequences into measurable commodities has enjoyed a long and successful history.

In 1990, governments in New England placed a cap on acid rain emissions from coal power plants, allowing “cleaner” plants that were under the cap to sell their excess pollution capacity as “credits” to “dirtier plants.”

As clean plants profited off of selling credits to dirty plants, dirty plants were motivated to retool and “scrub” their emissions.

Within 10 years, acid rain emissions in New England had plummeted by 40 per cent.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com