Bering Sea pollock fleet faces closure over salmon

In recent years, trawlers have intercepted record numbers of fish bound for rivers in Alaska

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Florence Johnson can rattle off myriad ways to prepare salmon. Drawing on a lifetime of fishing the Yukon River, she recommends canning, salting, or drying the fillets in her smokehouse near the heart of downtown Eagle.

Jon Rowley / Kwik'pak Fisheries Llc Via The Associated Press
Jon Rowley / Kwik'pak Fisheries Llc Via The Associated Press

"I'd be very lost without it," Johnson said. "I can eat salmon for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks."

That the fish reach Eagle at all is a minor miracle. The dirt-road town is 1,400 river miles from the Yukon's mouth and for a variety of reasons, many salmon never make it back to the waters of their birth.

Increasingly, they have been scooped up by the massive Bering Sea pollock fleet, a global source of frozen fish sticks, fillets and imitation crab, and the largest fishery by volume in the U.S.

The trend is deeply troubling for people living along the great rivers of western Alaska, including the Yukon. Salmon are a staple food and in some cases a primary source of cash for dozens of villages from the mouth of the 2,000-mile river to its headwaters in Canada. Wild Alaska kings also make up a small, but highly valuable segment of the worldwide fish market.

In recent years, the fleet of about 100 pollock trawlers have intercepted record numbers of salmon bound for rivers in Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Asia and Alaska. Federal laws prevent them from keeping the salmon, so fishermen generally throw the mostly dead and dying fish back into the sea, or donate a small fraction to food banks.

King salmon bycatch - fishing jargon for the unintentional capture of a species - in the Bering Sea pollock fishery rose last year to a record 122,000, up from a previous 5-year average of 57,333. The bycatch count for other salmon species hit a record 706,000 in 2005, according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The salmon problem has gotten so bad that the management council, a federal body that regulates the region's fisheries, expressed tentative support this month for an unprecedented proposal to temporarily close the Bering Sea pollock fishery should king salmon bycatch exceed a certain number.

"We are working to balance the ability of the pollock fleet to optimize their catch while minimizing salmon bycatch," said Diana Stram, a fishery management plan coordinator for the council.

Given the variety of market factors, there are no estimates on how fish prices could change if the restrictions go into place. There are also still several options for where to put the limit, which hasn't been decided upon.

Salmon fishermen in Eagle and elsewhere generally support the proposal, lamenting the loss of thousands of salmon each year.

"Not being so close to the sea, we're not right there watching it, but we all feel the effects," said Barry Westphal, a fisherman, Christian minister and the environmental coordinator for the Native Village of Eagle. "It seems like a terrible waste of a precious resource."

The corporations that dominate Alaska's billion-dollar pollock industry generally believe a limit on salmon bycatch would put a damper on pollock numbers and increase the cost of fuel by forcing boats to relocate more frequently, according to Stephanie Madsen, a former council chair who is now executive director of a pollock trade group, the At-Sea Processors Association.

If adopted, the limit on salmon bycatch would likely take effect in 2011 and, in some scenarios, could cost the pollock fleet more than $500 million annually, according to federal estimates.

The industry has spent over half a million dollars in the last five years to develop nets that allow salmon to escape while keeping pollock in, said John Gruver, interco-op manager at United Catcher Boats, based in Seattle. He said the latest version, which he is still refining, allows one in five salmon to swim free. Earlier models let more salmon escape, but broke easily.

"We hope people understand that we're not just out there hammering away and that we are aware of the bycatch situation," Madsen said. "We've been struggling with it for years."

But a tiny segment of the pollock fleet is pushing for the cap on bycatch. Members of a federal program set up to aid impoverished western Alaska villages rely almost exclusively on pollock for income. Some believe their mission to protect the salmon-dependent village economies comes first.

"We recognize that pollock is where we get our royalty money from," said Ragnar Alstrom, executive director of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association. "But both the subsistence and commercial salmon fisheries inriver are more important to us than the pollock."

Pollock boats are just one of many obstacles that can lead to a salmon's demise. Spawning returns hinge on several factors, including ocean temperatures, availability of food, predator numbers and disease.

For example, scientists blame the devastation of the Yukon salmon fishery in 2000 not on pollock boats, but on anomalous algal blooms in the Bering Sea. A five-year study by University of Washington professor emeritus Richard Kocan has shown a possible link between warming temperatures in the Yukon River and the emergence of a new disease in a variety of salmon species.

"There are many reasons the salmon don't come back to spawn," said Frank Quinn, area director with the government agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada. "But we need to do something. Bycatch is one thing we can have an impact on."

Canada had to close the Yukon River to nearly all king salmon fishing last year because so few fish came across the border from Alaska, said Quinn, who is based in Whitehorse, Yukon. Based on early estimates, the fisheries department may impose the same restrictions this season.

Elsewhere, scientists and government officials are expecting this year's West Coast salmon season to be one of the worst in history, owing to the collapse of one of the region's largest wild salmon runs. Possible causes range from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution.

West Coast lawmakers are protesting a Bush administration plan to chop a $170 million disaster relief plan for the Pacific salmon fishing industry to $100 million. The money is part of the recently passed federal farm bill.

Johnson, 69, has a field-tested backup plan for the years when the salmon don't come.

"I'll go out and get caribou or moose instead when the runs are bad," she said. "But you know when I'm out hunting, that's my breakfast - salmon strips and Ritz crackers. So, I don't know what I'd do without my salmon."



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