Tribal organizations sue feds over lack of protection for subsistence fisheries

AVCP, TCC contend that feds are prioritizing maximum groundfish harvest over subsistence fishing

Two prominent Alaska Native tribal entities filed a lawsuit in federal court in Anchorage on Friday, April 7, seeking to make the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reexamine groundfish catch limits for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) based in Bethel, and the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) in Fairbanks, allege that when NMFS adopted groundfish catch limits for 2023-2024 that the agency unlawfully relied on outdated environmental studies and failed to consider monumental ecosystem-wide changes that have occurred in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands over the past two decades.

The litigation was filed by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Plaintiffs said that the state is facing a historic salmon crisis, seriously impacting the people of Western Alaska, with subsistence fishing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river villages severely restricted for over a decade, while the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch, in fisheries where salmon is not the target species.

The federal government’s current fisheries management decisions are prioritizing maximizing groundfish catch over protecting subsistence rights of Alaska Native people, who are deeply impacted by such decisions, they said. In the face of sweeping ecosystem changes that impact people depending on the marine environment, NMFS continues to set groundfish catch limits based on analyses well over a decade old, plaintiffs said. Such rapid and unprecedented ecosystem changes are relevant to fisheries management decisions and defendants cannot make informed decisions based on severely outdated studies, they said.

Vivian Korthuis, chief executive officer of AVCP, said their intent is to hold the federal government accountable for its lack of action, lack of urgency and lack of understanding that as the environment changes, catastrophic impacts are occurring.


“The federal government continues its ‘business as usual’ deliberate and ineffective management style as our people suffer and our waters are forever harmed,” Korthuis said. “The Yukon-Kuskokwim region is one of the most cash-poor regions of the state, making the salmon harvest particularly important for food security as well as the continuation of the region’s cultures.”

Brian Ridley, chief and chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said that NMFS needs to do a supplemental environmental impact study to analyze the fisheries management plan considering climate change and the dramatic decline in salmon.

“The government allows the commercial industry to carry on unchanged, while the people who have responsibly cared for our precious natural resources for centuries are harmed,” Ridley said.

The environmental nonprofit SalmonState meanwhile criticized the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which was holding its April meeting in Anchorage, for failure to meaningfully address the issue of the pollock trawl fleet’s bycatch of chum salmon, king salmon, herring, halibut, snow crab, Bristol Bay red king crab, and other species.

“Instead of recognizing the need to manage Alaska’s oceans as an ecosystem and accepting its own Salmon Bycatch Committee (SBC) and Advisory Panel’s (AP) recommendations for a range of measures to reduce chum salmon bycatch, the council threw out the guidance of the advisory boards they charged with developing this very proposal and assigned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to start again from square one in proposing a cap. This decision postpones any meaningful action for this fishing season at the very least,” SalmonState said in a statement released on Monday, April 10.

“This council seems to be prioritizing profits for the pollock fishery over all other interests,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState. “Instead of addressing Alaskans’ urgent calls for action, they’re putting herring, king salmon, chum salmon, crab, halibut, and traditional ways of life on the chopping block so trawlers can keep trawling.”