Bob Poe: Let’s Hope They’re Right!
By Bob Poe
Earlier this month in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council was faced with the Solomonic choice between maintaining the lucrative Bering Sea Pollock fishery and significantly reducing Chinook bycatch to restore salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
Residents of western Alaskan villages like Emmonak, Kotlik and Nunam Iqua were hopeful the Council would make real reductions in allowable salmon bycatch. Commercial salmon fishing is one of the only ways to earn cash in villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim. Recent low Chinook returns combined with record high fuel prices forced some western Alaska residents this year to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families.
Chinook salmon bycatch has climbed to record levels nearly doubling from 67,363 salmon in 2005 to 121,638 in 2007. Salmon taken as bycatch don’t survive to return to their natal rivers for harvest or spawning. The limited number of salmon currently making it into the rivers must be allowed to pass by local fishers in order to meet escapement targets and to meet treaty obligations between the US and Canada.
On the surface the solution seems simple; just stop the offshore trawlers from catching Chinook salmon. Trawlers can avoid bycatch by not fishing in waters where the Chinook population is high and by using new technologies that encourage salmon to swim out before they are crushed in the trawl net.
But fish politics are never simple. In the early 1990’s, during the Hickel Administration, the Council established a program called CDQ (Community Development Quota). These communities get a share of the Pollock resource allocation each year and either contract to have it harvested or own the trawlers to do it themselves. Sixty five communities within a 50 mile radius of the Bering Sea coastline, divided into six regional non-profit organizations, participate. CDQ groups earn tens of millions of dollars each year for their communities. They have built a variety of local seafood processing enterprises, made loans to fishers in their regions, provide scholarships, and good paying jobs to their residents.
With so much at stake, hundreds of western Alaskans came to testify to the Council. It took days to get through, but unlike past testimony rural residents were divided. Testifiers recognized the importance of salmon to their communities both from a cultural and nutritional perspective, but they also understood the economic benefits brought to their communities through offshore fishing. A large group from Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of the six CDQ groups, made this point with their bright yellow T-shirts proclaiming “Pollock provides”.
The Council considered proposals ranging from setting a hard cap between 29,323 and 87,500 king salmon, to keeping the status quo. Pollock trawlers and some CDQ’s wanted a cap of around 68,000 fish, with incentives to encourage the use of gear that could help reduce bycatch further. Most of the non-CDQ representatives from western Alaska were advocating a cap of about 32,000 or less based on 1992-2001 average bycatch levels.
Unfortunately in the end, the Council voted unanimously for a hard cap almost twice the number hoped for by those depending on the salmon fishery. Incentives and penalties were also established to encourage the trawl fleet to avoid catching salmon, which industry says will help reduce bycatch below the hard cap of 60,000.
But this isn’t just about economic contention for limited fish resources – it’s about feeding families who have traditionally obtained nutrition and income from salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim. If the Pollock fishers already know how to reduce salmon bycatch and simply need encouragement to adopt better practices and gear, wouldn’t a lower hard cap be the best encouragement? The Council has done a good job over the years, but it seems at this point all western Alaska residents can do is hope they are right. If western Alaska continues to see poor returns and bycatch isn’t significantly reduced as a result of the Council’s action, the Council needs to immediately revisit this matter and put more stringent bycatch limits in place.
I received a Facebook friend request from Alaska gubernatorial candidate, Bob Poe. When I accepted, he replied with this article about bycatch issues in the Yukon Delta fishery. He offered his permission to print it at anonymous bloggers. Additionally, Mr. Poe has expressed an interest in listening to my input, and that from all of us here at anonymous bloggers, in addressing issues facing rural Alaska.
I look forward to working with not only Mr. Poe, but all current and future elected officials in building more sustainable bush communities.