A proposal to limit salmon fishing time around the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands during the June fishery, to allow for many more chums to head north to the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, has been rejected by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
Instead, during its meeting in Anchorage this past week, the board opted for a measure that somewhat limits fishing time, but not to the extent of the rejected proposal.
The board’s decision on Feb. 26 on the intercept fishery of Chinook, sockeye and chum salmon came after several days of emotional testimony from fishermen and residents of Area M and the AYK, with both sides speaking out on the socioeconomic and cultural significance of salmon to their region. Testimony ranged from concerns of potentially lost fish taxes for communities, to wolves and bears unable to get enough salmon from rivers and instead attacking sled dog teams in Yukon River villages tied out in dog yards.
Proposal 140 would have amended the South Unimak and Shumagin Islands June Salmon Management Plan, written by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), to reduce fishing times for salmon bound for Bristol Bay and the AYK. Historically these stocks have been intercepted in significant numbers along the Alaska Peninsula, noted Proposal 140, which was submitted by the Fairbanks Advisory Subcommittee to the Boards of Fish and Game. Proposal 140 would have allowed for openings by emergency order for seine, drift gillnet and setnet harvesters to stop excessive harvest of these stocks of concern to the AYK.
Instead, the board approved measures to decrease fishing time in Area M, which institutes harvest cap triggers for the seine fleet and closes the Sanak Island section, to lower chum harvest.
The action came in the wake of over 600 pages of written comment, nearly 300 in-person testimonies over a three-day period, plus a number of written reports and presentations by ADF&G staff.
Kiley Thompson, president of the Area M Seiners Association, and a leader of the Eastern Aleutian Fisheries Coalition, said they didn’t come away from the meeting with everything they wanted, but maintained sufficient time and area to allow the Area M fishery to survive another season, and to provide fish for Alaskans and others around the world.
Retired Alaska salmon biologist Steve Reifenstuhl, formerly with the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association in Sitka, cited research from the International Year of the Salmon, as well as NOAA Fisheries, that showed coastal western Alaska chum sampled as juveniles and sub adults were low in fat content, skinny and had near empty stomachs across a broad swath of their range. The research also showed an unhealthy environment brought on by extreme ocean heat years in the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean from 2015 to 2019, he said.
But University of Washington fisheries professor and researcher Daniel Schindler noted in his written and oral testimony that it had been known for decades that Area M commercial sockeye salmon fisheries intercept chum salmon destined for western Alaska river systems. Meanwhile commercial fisheries in Area M have been allowed to continue to exploit these fish without restriction, a situation Schindler described as “antithetical to the sustained yield principle of the Alaska Constitution and in direct conflict with Alaska’s Sustainable Salmon Policy.”
Schindler told the fisheries board that there are distinct technical and logistical challenges to managing mixed-stock fisheries such as those in Area M, but it is it is incumbent on the board to implement regulations to manage these fisheries in a manner that is consistent with Alaska
Statues mandating sustained yield management of wild stocks, including the “policy for the management of mixed stock salmon fisheries” and the Sustainable Salmon Policy.
“This is currently not the case in Area M fisheries, which continue a documented harvest of severely declined western Alaska chum salmon stocks,” he said. “Continued harvest of stocks during periods of very low productivity also increases the extinction risk of weak populations that are harvested in the stock aggregate.”
“History is being made here, because we have two major river systems that have totally collapsed,” said Robin Samuelsen of Dillingham, a veteran Bristol Bay harvester and chairman of the board of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.
“You don’t know how much this affects people on the Kuskokwim and Yukon,” Samuelsen said. “I have seen people cry so damn many times. It’s bad. It’s a human rights issue.”
Brian Ridley, chief/chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), which represents hundreds of people living in communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, said TCC was incredibly disappointed with the decision to prioritize commercial fishing over the needs of subsistence users throughout Alaska by the fisheries board “disregarding its statutory obligations.” Ridley said the testimonies of subsistence harvesters are backed by science, data and indigenous knowledge.
A number of subsistence harvesters from communities along the river systems spoke of food security issues, empty freezers and no fish camps where cultural traditions are passed on to younger generations.
Others from Area M spoke of their experiences shutting down their fishing time to allow for escapement of chum salmon headed north and for the loss of fish tax dollars that support local economies. They urged a status quo on management regulations.
ADF&G estimated the total preliminary commercial harvest for 2022 in Area M to be worth $720.4 million, up from $643.9 million in 2021. A total of 160.7 million fish were harvested in Area M in 2022, down 31% from the 2021 harvest total of 233.8 million salmon. ADF&G said the decrease in harvest was explained by the relatively low pink salmon run size in 2022, consistent for even-numbered years over the last decade.
During the same period there was no commercial harvest allow for the AYK.