ANCHORAGE - A program is expected to be in place by 2011 to cap the number of king salmon that can be accidentally caught in the Bering Sea pollock fishery and for the first time subject the nation's largest fishery to the possibility of a complete shutdown.
The move is being sparked by concerns about the steep decline in king salmon returning to rivers of western Alaska, where villagers rely on the oil-rich fish to get through the harsh winters, and the high numbers of king salmon mistakenly caught at sea by pollock fishermen.
Under the NOAA Fisheries program, if the limit of salmon bycatch is reached, the pollock fishery - the largest by volume in the United States - will have to shut down. Previous measures had shut down part of the fleet but not all of it.
And the program proposal, published Tuesday in the Federal Register, provides incentives to encourage pollock fishermen to avoid king salmon, also called Chinook salmon. It also increases federal observers aboard pollock vessels to make sure every salmon that is accidentally caught is counted.
Each pollock trawl vessel will have at least one observer on board, said Sue Salveson, division chief of sustainable fisheries for the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the entity that manages ocean fish, worked with scientists in other federal and state agencies on the issue, she said.
"The issue of salmon bycatch has been a priority of the council for quite some time," Salveson said.
The huge pollock fishery accounts for about 95 percent of king salmon accidentally caught in Alaska waters. Numbers spiked in 2007 when approximately 122,000 kings were accidentally pulled up in pollock nets. Since then, the numbers mistakenly caught have declined dramatically to 12,410 in 2009.
The kings being caught as bycatch are coming from Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Asian countries along the Pacific Rim. More than half the fish could be destined for western Alaska rivers.
In general, western Alaska kings declined sharply in 2007 and have remained depressed.
Salveson said the pollock fleet can be credited with making changes to avoid salmon bycatch. The decline in bycatch also could be because of changes in abundance and distribution of kings, she said.
Under the plan, if some or all of the pollock vessels participate in the program, the cap is 60,000 kings a year. If the industry does not participate, the cap is 47,591 fish.
Salveson said there are program incentives to keep the fleet well below the cap regardless of how many Chinook salmon there are in the ocean any given year.
The program also provides the fleet with the flexibility it needs, she said.
People living in villages along the Yukon River have blamed the pollock fishery for the low returns of king salmon to the river system in western Alaska. But federal and state fisheries biologists said the issue is more complicated and point to other possible causes.
Earlier this year, a fishery disaster was declared in western Alaska because of low salmon returns for the past two years along the Yukon.
NOAA Fisheries will accept comments on the proposed rule until May 7. A final rule is expected by late summer.