ANCHORAGE - Bering Sea pollock fishermen want to aggressively tackle the growing problem of unintentionally caught salmon.
Fishermen have asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to let the industry determine how to catch fewer salmon.
Boats targeting pollock have seen their unintentional take, or bycatch, of king salmon nearly double in recent years and the chum salmon harvest increase sixfold. No one knows why the numbers are up, although some believe it suggests salmon are more plentiful.
The increase is troubling to Western Alaska subsistence and commercial fishermen. More than half the kings and a quarter of the chums are bound for streams from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound - a region plagued for years by low runs.
If pollock fishermen succeed in their request to the federal fishery council, more salmon should reach Alaska streams. The pollock fleet would also benefit, industry officials say, because catching fewer salmon could let them harvest more pollock at a lower cost and avoid bad publicity.
Bycatch is a nagging element of commercial fishing. North Pacific fishermen catch nearly 4 billion pounds of pollock, cod and other bottom fish every year, but they toss overboard about 300 million pounds of fish that are too big, too small or the wrong species or gender.
Federal regulations approved in the 1990s have cut total discards in half.
But the salmon bycatch has jumped in recent years. The average incidental king harvest through the 1990s was 38,000 fish a year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. This year it hit 63,000. The chum catch rose from 69,000 fish during that period to nearly 460,000 this year.
Most are juvenile fish, said Dave Witherell of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Complaints from Western Alaska salmon fishermen prompted the council in the 1990s to close portions of the Bering Sea to trawling during periods when chums and kings were most plentiful. Additional closures could be imposed on the pollock fleet if too many salmon continue to be caught.
The pollock fleet believes the old "salmon saving area" closures don't work, said John Gruver, of the Seattle-based United Catcher Boats. His organization is calling for a new bycatch reduction plan.