I don’t catch many king salmon at my setnet site on the west side of Kodiak where my family and I spend summers. That’s just the way it is. We haul in abundant pinks, sockeyes and silvers, preserve them in ice and hope for a good price. I’m deeply concerned, however, that my fellow fishermen won’t be catching many kings this year, either, because returns have been extremely low to river systems in the central and western Gulf of Alaska.
But while king salmon returns have declined, the bycatch of kings in Gulf trawl fisheries has risen dramatically, last year topping 51,000 chinook. About 80 percent were taken by the pollock fleet, the rest by trawl vessels targeting other groundfish.
Salmon fishermen in Gulf communities are often restricted from catching kings. When late-run chinook escapement goals are not met in Cook Inlet, all commercial fishing on the inlet’s east side is closed. The Karluk River on Kodiak Island has been closed to subsistence for the last three years and to sport fishing for two seasons. Kings there were recently declared a “stock of concern,” and the same designation now applies to some upper Cook Inlet streams where sport fishermen are facing restrictions. The Kenai River experienced one of its lowest return levels ever last year. The Board of Fish has considered further mitigation measures for commercial fishermen to cut the unintended harvest of chinooks.
Yet there are no such limits on chinook bycatch in the pollock fishery. Why not? Most salmon bycatch goes into holds unsorted from the target catch, and our prized chinooks end up as waste destined for fish meal plants.
We can tolerate such wastefulness no longer. That’s why over 550 Gulf fishermen and coastal Alaskans otherwise connected to the salmon resource are sending a letter to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week urging them to set a limit on king salmon bycatch.
The council is considering measures to bring bycatch under control, including a cap between 15,000 to 30,000 kings, and a requirement that the pollock fleet cooperate in avoiding king salmon to lower the number taken in trawl nets. The idea is to create incentives to fish more carefully without forgoing their target catch. It may be less efficient in terms of speed, but it will be cleaner.
I think the combination of a bycatch cap and incentives is fair — as long as the cap is low enough to reduce chinook bycatch below the average amount. No one would argue that we don’t need to prevent spikes like 2010. But the real solution is in getting the maximum amount allowed down to acceptable levels. The lower end of the range under consideration is the only option that makes sense to salmon fishermen who suffer the consequences when salmon stocks are low.
It is time for the trawl fleet to share in the responsibility for conserving king salmon and rebuilding failing runs. The ocean is complex and it is certain that multiple factors influence the robustness or failure of Chinook runs. Some of the salmon bycatch includes fish that are destined for Gulf of Alaska streams, while some are fish from the endangered stocks in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Some may be headed to healthy rivers. The point is we can’t know exactly how many of those fish will replenish our depressed runs. We do know that minimizing wasteful fishing practices will help.
The chinook salmon is an Alaskan icon, central to our heritage, and valuable to subsistence, commercial and recreational users. I respect that pollock is a business for trawl fishermen as salmon is for many of us. But it’s a bitter pill to swallow when we must pay the price for bycatch in another fleet. Along with the other 550 Alaskans, I ask fishery managers to be bold, set a conservative bycatch limit, and create economic incentives to encourage success.
Kip Thomet is a long-time Kodiak resident and fisherman. He and his family have fished their west side setnet site for the past 20 seasons.