ANCHORAGE - The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is taking up the contentious issue of salmon bycatch in a fish fight that pits the interests of pollock fishermen against salmon fishermen in western Alaska villages.
Billions of pounds of pollock are caught each year in the Bering Sea. But local fishermen in western Alaska villages say the pollock fleet is accidentally catching and killing far too many of the salmon that the region counts on for food and money.
Now, more than 200 people have signed up to testify over the next several days at the council meeting in Anchorage.
The council is deciding whether to put an unprecedented cap on the number of king salmon the pollock fleet can catch each year, in an effort to boost salmon stocks in Alaska and Canada.
Friday, each side began making its case.
"For thousands of years, people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have harvested salmon for food," Ray Oney of Alakanuk told the council. He said when the pollock fleet also nets salmon, that hurts nearly 7,000 families in about 80 communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has written a massive review of how the bycatch of kings affects salmon in Alaska. The agency prefers a plan that would cap the fleet's annual bycatch at about 68,400 salmon or fewer.
The salmon bycatch hit a record 121,600 kings in 2007, before a sharp decline last year.
The council's advisory panel, a separate group that began meeting earlier this week, recommends the 68,400 figure. The fleet would have to pull its nets for the rest of the year once it reached the limit.
Nicholas Tucker, the Emmonak man whose letter describing hardships in his village turned national attention to the region this winter, planned to push for a cap of about 32,000 kings, he said.
The fishing industry is proposing alternatives to a flat cap on bycatch. It has offered two complex plans that would carve the overall bycatch allowance among individual boats.