ANCHORAGE - The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has voted to place an unprecedented limit on the number of king salmon accidentally killed each year during the commercial Bering Sea pollock catch.
The panel voted unanimously Monday to cap the number at 60,000, or fewer under certain conditions.
The decision, which followed public hearings, strikes at the contentious debate pitting the interests of pollock fishermen against salmon fishermen in western Alaska villages.
Billions of pounds of Bering Sea pollock are caught each year. But village fishermen say the pollock fleet is catching and killing far too many of the salmon that communities depend on for food and money.
The Bering Sea pollock industry caught a record 121,638 salmon in 2007. There was a sharp decline in bycatch numbers last year.
In Monday's action, the fishery council also voted to create a system of rewards and penalties aiming to encourage pollock fishermen to avoid wasting salmon and allow more of the kings to return to the Yukon and other rivers to spawn. Those breaking the limit would have to stop fishing mid-season.
"I fully recognize that this reduction is not a silver bullet," council chairman Eric Olson said before the vote. "It's not going to magically make things OK in the streams of Western Alaska ... (but) even a small, incremental increase of spawners that reach the rivers is going to help the recovery."
Many Western Alaska residents asked for far tighter controls on the pollock fishery.
"We have been promised by the trawl fleet that they will try and avoid the bycatch as much as they can. But look what happened in 2007," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents.
Naneng's group represents 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, where a lack of commercial salmon fishing combined with an early winter and skyrocketing energy prices left some families struggling to pay for food and fuel.
Pollock industry representatives said the number of salmon they'll actually catch will likely be well below the approved limit.
Paul MacGregor, speaking for the At-Sea Processors Association, called the cap a "safety net."
"If we deliver through these incentive plans that we have proposed, and they work as we think that they will, what you're going to find is that the actual bycatch in the pollock fishery is significantly lower than that," he said.
Nicole Ricci, a foreign affairs officer for the State Department, told the council just before the vote that the cap wouldn't do enough to meet a treaty agreement between the United States and Canada to ensure strong salmon stocks in the Yukon River.
"I don't understand how you can call this a reduction," Ricci said. She noted that the upper limit of the cap is higher than the average bycatch over the past decade.
"This has been one of the most disappointing things that I have sat through," she said.
Under the motion approved by the council, the cap would drop down to about 47,600 salmon if the industry's salmon bycatch routinely exceeds recent averages. Those refusing to take part in incentive programs would face far lower bycatch limits.
The council, consisting of government and industry representatives, sends recommendations to the U.S. commerce secretary for approval before the new bycatch rules can take effect in 2011.