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Our Comment: Salmon Bycatch

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

April 3, 2023

Mr. Simon Kinneen, Chair North Pacific Fishery Management Council 1007 West Third, Suite 400 Anchorage, AK 99501-2252

Dr. John Kurland, Regional Administrator NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Region 709 West Ninth Street Juneau, AK 99802-1668

Re: Agenda Item C2 Salmon Bycatch

Dear Chairman Kinneen, Dr. Kurland, and Council Members,

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council (AMCC) is dedicated to protecting the long-term health of Alaska’s marine ecosystems which sustain vibrant fishery-dependent communities. Our members include fishermen, subsistence harvesters, marine scientists, small business owners and diverse fishing families. Our ways of life, livelihoods and local economies depend on the sustainable fishing practices that contribute to healthy ecosystems.

This comment is directed to agenda item C2 Salmon Bycatch and incorporates components of the Chinook and chum salmon genetic reports from both the Bering Sea (BS) and the Gulf of Alaska (GOA), pollock IPA and Sea Share reports, and the Salmon Bycatch Committee recommendations throughout. AMCC recommends the Council adopt the Purpose and Need statement agreed upon by the Salmon Bycatch Committee and requests the Council initiate analysis of a range of alternatives to meaningfully reduce chum and Chinook salmon bycatch.

First, in recognition of the sovereign status of tribes and the rights described in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration), and in recognition of the considerations within National Standards 1 and 9, we support the Alaska Native Peoples affected by salmon declines who are requesting the NPFMC analyze an alternative of a PSC limit of zero chum salmon. The Declaration confirms the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, recognizing subsistence rights and rights to resources, and recognizes that Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress. Seventeen of the forty-five articles of the Declaration deal with Indigenous culture and how to protect and promote it, by respecting the direct input of Indigenous peoples in decision-making, and allowing for resources, such as those for education in Indigenous languages and other areas. Fifteen of the forty-six articles of the Declaration are about Indigenous peoples’ participation in all decisions that will affect their lives, including meaningful participation in a democratic polity. These components of the Declaration, while not legally binding, emphasize the significance of human rights implications held within the following considerations in National Standard 9 of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (emphasis [and clarification] added):

A determination of whether a conservation and management measure minimizes bycatch or bycatch mortality to the extent practicable, consistent with other national standards and maximization of net benefits to the Nation [which include, but are not limited to: Negative impacts on affected stocks; incomes accruing to participants in directed fisheries in both the short and long term; incomes accruing to participants in fisheries that target the bycatch species; environmental consequences; non-market values of bycatch species, which include non-consumptive uses of bycatch species and existence values, as well as recreational values; and impacts on other marine organisms], should consider the following factors:

(A) Population effects for the bycatch species.

(B) Ecological effects due to changes in the bycatch of that species (effects on other species in the ecosystem).

(C) Changes in the bycatch of other species of fish and the resulting population and ecosystem effects.

(D) Effects on marine mammals and birds.

(E) Changes in fishing, processing, disposal, and marketing costs.

(F) Changes in fishing practices and behavior of fishermen.

(G) Changes in research, administration, and enforcement costs and management effectiveness.

(H) Changes in the economic, social, or cultural value of fishing activities and nonconsumptive uses of fishery resources.

(I) Changes in the distribution of benefits and costs.

(J) Social effects.

The Councils should adhere to the precautionary approach found in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (Article 6.5), when faced with uncertainty concerning any of the factors listed in this paragraph (d)(3).

The FAO Code of Conduct, referenced in National Standard 9 above, describes the precautionary principle of ensuring “that fishing pressure from other (e.g. industrial) segments of the fishery does not deplete the resources to the point where severe corrective action is needed.” For communities which have relied on subsistence fishing since time immemorial and have not been afforded opportunities to fish, as well as for irreplaceable local commercial salmon fisheries, the loss of access to harvest is a conservation burden with incredible consequences and which is unmatched by the sector utilizing salmon as an incidental catch allowance to prosecute their fishery with maximum efficiency. Severe corrective action is needed. National Standard 1 describes that Optimum Yield is prescribed on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by “any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor.” Analyzing a PSC limit of zero chum salmon is a reasonable consideration within a range of alternatives.

Figure 1. Opportunities for the subsistence harvesting of traditional foods, as well as economic opportunities from commercial harvest, are dependent on the abundance of wild foods in direct proximity to communities along the river systems shown above. Alternatives to subsistence and commercial harvest of salmon are limited and carry different cultural significance. (Commercial Harvest data from ADFG).

In recent years, escapement goals for some river systems have not been met. In addition to analyzing alternatives for regulatory hard caps, AMCC recommends that the analysis for this action includes frameworks for time and area closures during peak months of WAK chum salmon interceptions.

Figure 2. Eastern Bering Sea Pollock Fishery chum salmon bycatch compared to cumulative chum salmon escapement goals from each management area of the AYK Region data from ADFG.

In the recent presentation to the Salmon Bycatch Committee, genetic sampling in 2022 showed that Western Alaska chum salmon bycatch was approximately 21% in the Bering Sea. That means 1 in 5 chum salmon caught as bycatch were bound for Western Alaska, with peak catch occurring in several key areas.

Figure 3. Spatial distribution of chum salmon bycatch caught in the 2022 Bering Sea B-Season pollock fishery.

This rate of interception is significant considering the crisis of low returns to vital river systems, and suggests that the lower bycatch numbers observed in 2021 are not indicative of the effectiveness of IPAs in minimizing bycatch. Indeed, chum salmon bycatch has increased since Amendment 110 was passed; even taking into account an increase in hatchery chum production, the ratio of Western & Interior Alaska chum taken as bycatch has been stable at roughly 20% of overall chum bycatch. These numbers further indicate that regulatory guidance is necessary at this time to return chum and Chinook salmon to Alaska rivers.

As of March 23, approximately 11,300 Chinook salmon have been caught as bycatch in the Bering Sea. This surpasses in 3 months the 8,300 Chinook salmon3 that were caught as bycatch in 2022. With limited observer coverage in the GOA, at least 4,000 Chinook Salmon have been caught as bycatch already this year. This is a species that is struggling all across Alaska and down the Pacific Coast. The current cap must be reconsidered. A new analysis needs to be initiated, with guidance from the Salmon Bycatch Committee, that would aim to further reduce Chinook bycatch.

While the majority of EBS chum bycatch in 2022 was of North American origin, the amount of Asian-origin hatchery chum in the North Pacific is concerning, particularly as it contributes at minimum a reduction in prey availability for salmon of Alaska origin. Since the NPFMC is unable to control hatchery releases, an appropriate and effective response would be to incorporate into analysis the relationship between forage fish and the incidental catch of salmon, as well as prey availability and salmon health. For example, squid migration to the Bering Sea shelf may correlate with salmon abundance, as squid are a substantial food source for both Chinook and chum salmon and is encountered, along with salmon, in upwellings from the Bering, Pribilof and Zhemchung Canyons. As seen in IPA and genetics reports, there are areas that have been identified with higher interception rates that could be consistently utilized to decrease Western Alaska (WAK) chum salmon bycatch.

Figure 4. Squid catch by EBS pollock fleet in 2015 beside 2021 Chum Salmon RHS Closure areas.

In addition, the data used to produce IPA reports should be made publicly available for more extensive and transparent analyses of options to reduce salmon bycatch, including known behavior of vessels with the highest rates of salmon bycatch. The amount of environmental data and fishery dependent data we have available can be used in many different ways to create more adaptive inseason management strategies. It is responsive to the needs of all to review and analyze potential gear and behavior modifications that could decrease the chum salmon interceptions and mortality (i.e. utilizing salmon excluders year-round, analyzing relationships between salmon encounters and depth/temperature/tow speed/time of day).

Figure 5. Eastern Bering Sea Pollock Fishery Non-Chinook bycatch (left axis in # of fish) with mean bottom and sea surface temperatures from NOAA data (right axis in Celsius).

It is plausible that lower bycatch harvest rates might have more to do with lower ocean temperature fluctuations and salmon migration responses, not solely responses to the IPAs. Additionally, internal regulatory agreements have an outlier provision that only applies after two consecutive seasons of poor bycatch performance take place. Two seasons of elevated chum salmon bycatch harvest at the individual boat level is not timely enough, and can serve to compound impacts to particular year classes of returns - particularly problematic when river systems are not reaching escapement needs.

Food security is much more than having access to a meal. The Prohibited Species Donation Program has been successful in concept, and although it represents a positive use of fish that would have otherwise been thrown overboard dead, it neither addresses the problem of the severance of people's relationships with place, culture and community nor remedies the effects of removing salmon from the ecosystem. Sea Share donations do not redress the consequences of intercepting vital stocks.

The Council should be clear in its intent to pursue an analysis that results in actionable options for minimizing salmon bycatch and providing restorative conservation measures. With the current state of salmon health in Western Alaska and at the urging of the people whose lives are inextricably linked with salmon, now is the time for a comprehensive bycatch management plan.

Thank you for considering our comments.


Marissa Wilson

Executive Director

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