US, Canada juggle dwindling river salmon

After one of the most dismal years for salmon returns in the history of the Pacific Coast, Alaskans will meet in Anchorage next week to discuss whether to regulate fish bycatch by the state's $1- billion pollock industry.

After one of the most dismal years for salmon returns in the history of the Pacific Coast, Alaskans will meet in Anchorage next week to discuss whether to regulate fish bycatch by the state’s – billion pollock industry.

In 2008, the entire Yukon caught fewer than 3,000 chinook.

And the US states of Oregon and Idaho have designated chinook as an endangered species.

Many, including conservation group Greenpeace, have placed blame for low salmon numbers squarely on the Alaska pollock fishery, which nets thousands of chinook per year as “bycatch.”

Over the last five years, Alaska pollock fishers have netted an average of 82,000 chinook per year, catching an all-time high of 122,000 salmon in 2007. By law, salmon caught in bycatch must be thrown back or donated to food banks.

Over the past 10 years, successive studies have found that up to 60 per cent of salmon bycatch originates in western Alaska, which includes the mouth of the Yukon River.

Bycatch makes an impact, but it cannot fully explain where the salmon are going, say bycatch researchers.

“When you look at the (bycatch) numbers, it’s just not enough to explain the decline in Yukon salmon,” said Katherine Myers, an oceanic research scientist at the University of Washington who conducted pollock bycatch analysis in the late 1990s.

Warmer water temperatures, increased predators and even new strains of fish disease could all be dealing blows to salmon populations.

“We don’t know, and it’s going to take a lot more research to pin it down,” said Myers.

“There’s no smoking gun,” said Diane Stram, co-chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

However, bycatch is the only thing that can be “controlled,” noted Stram.

Pollock and salmon fishers are awaiting a decision by the Alaska-based North Pacific Fisheries Management Council—which controls the Alaska pollock fishery—on whether bycatch caps will be imposed on pollock fishers.

Under the proposed caps, once a certain level of bycatch was reached, the pollock industry would be forced to stop fishing for the season.

If caps were to be applied to previous years, up to 15,000 Yukon river salmon could have been saved, says a December report by Stram.

If a cap of 87,500 salmon—the highest cap being considered—was to be applied to the 2007 fishing season, 37 per cent of the bycatch would have been saved, with only a 22 per cent reduction to the total pollock catch.

If a cap of 29,300 were applied, 93 per cent of the salmon bycatch would have been saved, with only a 46 per cent reduction in the pollock catch.

Given the massive disparity between numbers of salmon caught versus numbers of pollock caught, millions of pollock would have to be given up to save tens of thousands of salmon.

The Alaskan pollock fishery is the United States’ largest fishery by volume—raking in more than $1.2 billion in 2007.

Pollock meat is a critical ingredient of imitation crab, fish sticks and fish burgers at McDonald’s, Arby’s and Burger King.

Alaska regulators will be hard pressed to impose tough restrictions on an immensely powerful industry.

In reducing bycatch, the Alaskan pollock industry could be looking at giving up between $500 million and $700 million in annual revenue, said Frank Quinn, area director of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“That’s pretty near the budget of the (Yukon) territory,” noted Quinn.

“It’s not likely that fishery will be closed down, don’t you think?” said Myers.

Weighing the economic impacts of bycatch reduction is difficult—since many chinook end up in the hands of subsistence—and not commercial—fishers, said Stram.

“It’s like comparing apples to oranges; we cannot compare the benefit of salmon to subsistence fishers versus the impacts on the pollock fishery,” she said.

Chum salmon have also been hit particularly hard by pollock bycatch, sometimes more than chinook.

However, chum bycatch has attracted less concern among North American fishers since most chum are of Russian and Japanese origin.

“And chinook just taste better,” said Myers.

The working group is meeting in Anchorage on January 20th to discuss regulating pollock fishers, but a final decision will not be announced by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council until April.

Meanwhile, the US and Canada have been left juggling what’s left of river salmon stocks along North America’s West Coast.

A series of renewed agreements in the Pacific Salmon Treaty will help the US and Canada manage plummeting chinook salmon stocks in North America’s western spawning rivers.

The renegotiated Pacific Salmon Treaty calls for BC to take a 30 per cent reduction in harvest numbers in order to preserve fish stocks bound for the US states of Oregon and Idaho.

Southeast Alaska reduced its harvest numbers by 15 per cent to preserve fish in BC’s Cowichan and Fraser rivers.

“Both countries are giving up significant access in order to meet the conservation needs of the chinook,” said Quinn.

Overall, the United States came out of negotiations with more fish, but countered by establishing a $30-million fund to mitigate the impacts on Canadian fishers.

Contact Tristin Hopper at