April Meeting Tackles Chinook Bycatch

Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Salmon Bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) concluded its April meeting last week following several days of discussion on the issue of salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fisheries. In-river salmon fishermen who are experiencing low returns of king salmon and restrictions on traditional subsistence harvest expressed deep concerns for the conservation of the ailing Chinook population in western Alaska. On the other side was testimony from the pollock fleet unwilling to drop bycatch caps. AMCC supported the western Alaska communities in urging a reduced bycatch cap because of the serious state of the Chinook population and dire circumstances for families who rely on Chinook for local economies and way of life.

The Council adopted a suite of measures anticipated to reduce Chinook and chum salmon bycatch. A key part of the Council’s decision, and the focus of much of the debate, was lowering the hard cap and performance standard for Chinook salmon in times of low abundance. The State of Alaska led a strong charge to provide protections for Western Alaska salmon stocks. Commissioner Sam Cotten put forward a motion calling for a 35% reduction in the performance standard and a 33% reduction in the hard cap. Those numbers were amended by Washington State’s representative to a 25% reduction in the hard cap and a 30% reduction in the performance standard. This lesser reduction is what passed in the Council’s final motion, 10-0. The lower performance standard and hard cap apply in years of low Chinook salmon abundance –years in which the combined total run size for the Unalakleet, Upper Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is less than 250,000 fish. In years when the stock falls below that boundary, the hard cap would be reduced from 60,000 fish to 45,000, and the performance standard from 47,591 to 33,318.

Beyond the changes to the caps, the Council’s action incorporates important mechanisms to reduce Chinook and chum salmon bycatch in all conditions of salmon abundance. Incentive Plan Agreements (IPAs) create incentives for vessels to reduce bycatch. With this latest action, chum bycatch reduction measures will be incorporated into the Chinook IPA.  The Council also added additional provisions to the IPAs — including enacting penalties or restrictions for vessels that maintain higher Chinook bycatch rates than others, requiring the use of salmon excluder devices, and restrictions on bycatch in October, which is historically a time of high bycatch. The options the Council selected under Alternative 4 allow the pollock fishery the flexibility to catch more of their harvest in the late A season, potentially shifting harvest effort away from the high bycatch times later in the year.

On Deck: Halibut Bycatch at June NPFMC Meeting

We leave the April Council meeting behind with a close eye on June’s upcoming halibut bycatch decision in Sitka. The Council will be taking final action to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries by up to 50 percent. After major declines in the directed fishery over the last 10 years, and a steady rate of bycatch in major groundfish operations, it’s critical that the Council reduces halibut bycatch in June. We will continue to keep you informed in the coming weeks about ways you can help support meaningful halibut bycatch reductions. For more information and past updates on the halibut bycatch crisis, click here.

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