'Different people, same fight.' Nome residents advocate for Bering Sea fishery managers to reduce salmon bycatch, add tribal seats
As chum and chinook salmon numbers dwindle across Alaska rivers, rural residents dependent on these salmon are demanding that federal managers do more to help restore the stocks. For Bering Sea fisheries, these federal managers are the members of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Five of the 11 voting council members gathered in Nome on July 21 to hear residents’ concerns.
The council members traveled to Nome at the request of Kawerak, the regional tribal nonprofit corporation. It’s part of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium, a group of 118 tribes in Western and Interior Alaska advocating for tribal representation in federal fishery management.
Kawerak President and CEO Melanie Bahnke, along with others at the meeting, had two main asks for the council members. First, to reduce salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea fisheries to zero. Second, to create tribally designated seats on the council that manages those fisheries. Zero bycatch, Bahnke said, is critical.
“In our view, the other option is that these species will go extinct for our use, which means our ability to transfer our culture and knowledge and way of life onto our seven generations forward is going to be extinct too,” Bahnke said.
One community member described boating upriver as a child and passing fish racks heavy with salmon in front of every camp. Now, she said, she would only be able to show her sons two filled racks.
Darlene Jemewouk Katchatag described raising her six children on king salmon, but now having no strips for her 16 grandchildren.
“This is a food security problem. It’s not money, it’s my grandkids,” Katchatag said.
She and many other residents said that they were tired after decades of advocating for less salmon bycatch and more priority on subsistence. As the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council members have changed, residents said, the issues have stayed the same.
“Different people, same fight,” Katchatag said. “It’s getting old. I’m getting old.”
The council said that so far this year, there have been 10,700 bycatch chum and about 9% of those, or 963 chum, were likely bound for Western Alaska rivers, based on genetic analysis. For chinook salmon, the council said that about 5,500 have been caught as bycatch, and about half would have been bound for Western Alaska.
The council operates under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Under the federal law, the council can regulate bycatch to the extent “practicable.” Reducing the salmon bycatch to zero would mean closing the fisheries.
Council member Nicole Kimball said that most of the chum bycatch each year is from Asian hatcheries. Regardless, she acknowledged that low salmon runs create a food security risk for Western Alaska communities, and that they pose a management problem for the council.
“If you're catching a lot of chum salmon bycatch, but only 9% is the chum that we care about, that's the chum that's coming back to Alaska river systems, how do we minimize bycatch of those salmon? That's the management problem,” Kimball said.
To address it, she said that the council has assigned its staff to produce a paper that includes the bycatch stock composition, a description of the rationale behind the current chum management, how the council could improve, and what certain changes could mean for chinook.
“It’s one of the things that we’ve found in past analysis is if you put a ton more restrictions on chum, you increase bycatch of chinook. So how do we keep from doing that?” Kimball said.
For solutions, Kimball said that the council would work with the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force, a body created by Gov. Dunleavy to create bycatch policy. The council is also conducting scientific studies, many to better understand how changing ocean conditions are affecting salmon. Council members said that current data shows large numbers of salmon dying in the ocean for reasons that aren’t entirely understood.
Council member and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said that if, however, river conditions prove to be an issue for salmon, then hatcheries could be a solution.
“It’s within my authority to permit incubator boxes up in this neck of the woods, and if you guys would like to try them again we'd be more than willing to permit those,” he said.
Whatever decisions the council makes, Kawerak’s Bahnke said that tribes need to be at the table and not just as members of the public who are allowed to comment, which is their only current option. Bahnke wants the council to have two tribally designated voting seats.
“My preference would be that it not be that the governor, whoever the governor is, shouldn’t be in control of determining who the two are selected to represent tribes on the council. It should be coming from the tribes themselves,” Bahnke said. “Otherwise politics gets involved.”
Adding seats would require an act of Congress. Council members pointed out that federal law prohibits them from lobbying Congress for changes.
At the end of the meeting, the council members thanked Nome residents for talking with them.
“Your voice really, really does matter, and we're going to continue to work on this bycatch issue. And although the best available information suggests that bycatch is a small contributor to this bigger problem affecting the salmon in Western Alaska, it's still a really important issue, and we still need to continue to work on it,” council member and NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Administrator Jon Kurland said.
The council traveled to Unalakleet the next day for another listening session.