Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, during their April meeting in Anchorage, took initial steps toward resolving a long-standing issue of salmon bycatch in the groundfish fisheries in the Eastern Bering Sea. Due to the lengthy process required on this issue, the council is not expected to take final action until its April 2025 meeting in Anchorage. Photo by Margaret Bauman

Federal fisheries regulators tasked with mediating conflicts over salmon bycatch in the groundfish fisheries between trawlers and commercial and subsistence salmon harvesters have updated their list of alternatives to be analyzed, but are a long way from resolving the problem. 

In fact, it will likely be April of 2025, when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) holds its spring meeting again in Anchorage, when final action will be voted on. 

In advance of a lengthy, careful update of its initial set of alternatives, which always include status quo, the council heard testimony for three days and also received written reports from a cross section of the Alaska pollock trawl industry, commercial and subsistence salmon harvesters, economists, environmentalists and tribal entities on how to reach that “practicable solution” that federal regulations dictate be reached. 

They heard from industry harvesters about efforts to avoid hot spots where salmon were spotted in the midst of the lucrative Alaska pollock fishery and researchers working to upgrade fishing gear to keep pollock going into their nets and salmon out. They heard from residents of Yukon River villages, whose families have relied on salmon for their economy, sustenance and culture for thousands of years, who haven’t been able to fish for depleted returning runs of salmon. They heard from economists and conservationists about changes in the global economy and warming climate conditions. 

Testimony from some trawler harvesters pleaded against any firm bycatch caps. Testimony from one subsistence harvester suggested that the trawl fleet be moved to fish no closer than 100 miles from the coast of Alaska, as an added step to avoid bycatch. 

At length the council came to a vote on Monday, on a lengthy revised list of alternatives to resolve the bycatch issue and sent it back to the staff of the NPFMC to study and report at during an upcoming council meeting. Meanwhile the pollock fishery will continue, and the fish freezers in Yukon River villages will be empty again at summer’s end. 

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While council staff had some complimentary words to say before voting to send the revised alternatives back to staff, it was clear that nobody was really pleased with what was accomplished at the April meeting and the prospect of no resolution for the entire year ahead. 

“This is not an action we are taking that will change anything,” said Andy Mezirow of Homer, who is wrapping up three terms, a total of nine years on the council. The upcoming June council meeting in Kodiak will be his last.  

“When the Board of Fisheries meets, they make a decision, but here it takes more time,” he said.   

“How can we do a better job of communicating that?” Mezirow asked fellow council members. “Is there a better way of communicating we are doing something besides drinking lousy coffee and doing nothing?” 

The earliest possible date for any action on the alternatives being analyzed by council staff would be at the Sept. 30 to Oct. 8 fall meeting in Anchorage, but that’s an iffy prospect. 

Among the residents of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers communities there is also a separate conflict of interest between the haves and have nots of the Community Development Quota (CDQ) entities. There are villages on the lower end of the Yukon benefitting from membership in CDQ entities that provide jobs, training and economic benefits of collaboration between the CDQ groups and seafood processing entities, and those at the upper portion of the river, where there are no CDQs. 

Craig Morris, who heads the non-profit development and marketing entity for the Alaska pollock industry, the Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP), said that over the past six years GAPP has performed two return on investment studies with Cornell University to track GAPP’s impact on building demand for pollock.  

“In the simplest terms, GAPP’s major contribution has been to place Wild Alaska Pollock into new forms and in new channels and when doing so move the name of the fish and its attributes to the front of package at retail and on the menu in foodservice thereby creating a price premium over other anonymous whitefish in the marketplace,” said Morris. 

“In the most recent return on investment study GAPP had performed by Cornell University in 2022, you will see that the research found that in the last five years, had there not been any GAPP marketing, the wholesale fillet price would have been 5.9% lower, on average, than it actually was during this period. Likewise, had there been no GAPP marketing over this period, the wholesale surimi price would have been 3.5% lower than it actually was over this period,” Morris said.  

“The research also found that from 2016-20, GAPP marketing resulted in an average increase in total wholesale fillet revenue of $22.6 million per year and wholesale surimi revenue by $17.7 million per year,” he said. “If you look at that in terms of the industry’s funding of GAPP, it means that for each dollar invested in GAPP marketing returned $15.75 in wholesale net revenue to the Wild Alaska Pollock industry.” 

A number of documents related to the initial review analysis of chum salmon, as well as written comments, are online under C2 at https://meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/3039

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