BOF Restricts Area M Harvest Times as Part of Commercial-Subsistence Harvesters Battle

(Left) John Jensen of Petersburg, Alaska, second from left, a member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, speaks with people from the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim group at the board meeting in Anchorage, including Virgil Umphenour, of Fairbanks, right, a member of the Fairbanks advisory committee. (Right) Brad Barr, treasurer of Concerned Area M Fishermen, meets with Area M fishermen at the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage, during a recess from the lengthy session. Photos: Margaret Bauman.

After hours of testimony and discussion regarding the intercept salmon fishery prized by both commercial and subsistence harvesters, Alaska fisheries managers on Feb. 25 reduced harvest times for Area M’s South Peninsula fishery in a manner that left nobody happy.

Area M fishermen said the decision of the Alaska Board of Fisheries could mean huge loses for communities dependent on that income to pay for vital aspects of local governments in coastal Alaska.

But for people from the Alaska-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region of western Alaska, who have not been allowed even subsistence harvests with salmon run returns at record lows for three years, that decision was devastating.

After the board voted down a proposal that would have significantly reduced commercial fishing times and areas in the South Peninsula and approved another measure with fewer reductions in fishing times, many people from the AYK region who had come to testify for subsistence rights walked out in protest.

“We need to err on the side of conservation,” said Dillingham resident Robin Samuelsen, a veteran commercial harvester in the Bristol Bay commercial sockeye fishery. “The board completely ignored the people of the AYK. What’s the priority in this state? Subsistence fishing. Probably 150 people testified that they don’t have any fish. It was very compelling testimony.”

 “Over the last 40 years we went from a 300,000 cap on chums to them (Area M) catching over two million chums a year,” he continued. “They are catching everyone’s fish that come through that area. As the numbers rise in that commercial catch (in Area M) the chums are disappearing. They can’t do anything about global warming, but they can limit the amount of the chum (catch).”

“It was really disappointing,” said Thomas Tilden, who was representing the Curyung Tribe and the Bristol Bay Native Association.  “I was hoping they would share the conservation of the salmon and limit bycatch. I think it was totally unfair. There are a lot of people who are very disappointed in the public process. It just doesn’t seem to be working.”

But Area M fishermen, including Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin Osterback, told the board that limiting harvest times could mean a huge cut in revenues that coastal communities were dependent on.

“By coming in and attacking us like this all the time, it’s moving more and more of our families out of the area,” he said.

“Proposal 140 as written would’ve walked back South Peninsula salmon management to the plan instituted by the board from 2001-2003, and would’ve reduced fishing time in June by over 70% compared to the current plan,” Ernie Weiss, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough, wrote in an article for the borough’s Fish News update.

After declining Proposal 140, the board opted to reduce the first June opener to 68 hours for seiners, the second opener to 66 hours and the final two openers to 88 hours. The plan instituted harvest cap triggers for the seine fleet and closed the Sanak Island section for June.

“Aleutians East Borough residents and fishermen in defense of Area M fisheries focused opposition to (Proposal) 140 and any proposals that would further restrict South Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries,” Weiss noted in his report.

The board’s decision on the intercept fishery of Chinook, sockeye and chum salmon came after several days of emotional testimony from fishermen and residents of Area M and the AYK, with both sides speaking out on the socioeconomic and cultural significance of chum salmon to their region.

Proposal 140 would have amended the South Unimak and Shumagin Islands June Salmon Management Plan, written by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), to reduce fishing times for salmon bound for Bristol Bay and the AYK.

Historically, these stocks have been intercepted in significant numbers along the Alaska Peninsula, Proposal 140 contends. The proposal would have allowed for openings by emergency order for seine, drift gillnet and setnet harvesters to stop excessive harvest of these stocks of concern to the AYK.

Kiley Thompson, president of the Area M Seiners Association, said they didn’t come away from the meeting with everything they wanted, but maintained sufficient time and area to allow the Area M fishery to survive another season.

He said that the entire fleet had stood down voluntarily during the 2022 fishery to let chum salmon swim through and would do that again in the 2023 fishery.

Retired Alaska salmon biologist Steve Reifenstuhl, of Sitka, cited research from the International Year of the Salmon, as well as NOAA Fisheries, showing coastal western Alaska chum sampled as juveniles and sub-adults were low in fat content, skinny and had nearly empty stomachs across a broad swath of their range.

The research also showed up an unhealthy environment brought on by extreme ocean heat years in the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean from 2015 to 2019, he said.

But University of Washington fisheries professor and researcher Daniel Schindler noted in his written and oral testimony that it had been known for decades that Area M commercial sockeye salmon fisheries intercept chum salmon destined for western Alaska river systems.

Chum salmon escapement across Western Alaska is down by 80-90% of historical numbers, he said.

Meanwhile, commercial fisheries in Area M have been allowed to continue to “exploit” these fish without restriction, which Schindler said is “antithetical to the sustained yield principle of the Alaska Constitution and in direct conflict with Alaska’s Sustainable Salmon Policy.”

Given the decisions made, it seems the burden of conservation is falling entirely to subsistence fisheries, he said.

“They can’t get the food they need to put in their freezers,” he remarked. “The AYK was simply asking Area M to back off so the fish could come through. Emergency orders don’t work for Area M because you don’t know when the run will come.”

“History is being made here, because we have two major river systems that have totally collapsed,” said Robin Samuelsen of Dillingham, a Bristol Bay harvester and chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. 

“You don’t know how much this affects people on the Kuskokwim and Yukon,” Samuelsen remarked. “It’s bad. It’s a human rights issue.”

Brian Ridley, chief/chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents hundreds of people living in communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, said his organization was incredibly disappointed with what they interpret as a decision to prioritize commercial fishing over the needs of subsistence users throughout Alaska by the fisheries board.