Emergency Action on Bering Sea Chinook Salmon Bycatch Denied

Image: NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries has denied a request to institute a zero cap on Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea, to ensure no bycatch of Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, saying the petition did not meet criteria necessary for emergency action.

The decision, announced by NOAA Fisheries on April 18, was in response to a petition submitted Jan. 17 by five Native Alaska tribal entities, asking Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to close the Bering Sea pollock fishery, which opened on Jan. 20.

The petition was signed by the Association of Village Council Presidents, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The petitioners also asked the Commerce Department to urge the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to evaluate and update its management of current Chinook salmon bycatch.

None of the petitioners issued any immediate response to NOAA’s decision.

NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said the agency’s aware of the dire situation for western and interior Alaska communities and is working with the state of Alaska, NPFMC, the commercial fishing industry and others to find meaningful improvements in the status of western Alaska salmon runs.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act allows NOAA Fisheries to undertake emergency action in certain circumstances, provided that three criteria exist. They involve a situation that results from unforeseen circumstances, present serious conservation or management problems in the fishery, and can be addressed through emergency regulations for which immediate benefits outweigh the value of advance notice, public comment and deliberative consideration of the impact on individuals to the same extent as would be expected under normal rulemaking.

NOAA officials also said that instituting a cap of zero Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery would effectively close the largest fishery in the country, adversely impacting the people, organizations and communities who rely on it, including Community Development Quota entities that provide substantial benefits to underserved communities.

NOAA Fisheries cited ongoing research that shows that declining Chinook salmon returns in the Bering Sea since 2007 are primarily caused by ecosystem-wide changes associated with climate change.

NOAA Fisheries also cited its 2023 annual “Bering Sea Ecosystem Status Report,” which indicates that early marine mortality, driven by slow growth, is a leading factor in declining Chinook salmon returns.

The transition from freshwater to marine phase presents a critical phase for salmon to get preferred, energy-dense prey needed to grow large enough to evade predation, the report stated.

Recent ecosystem shifts have reduced availability of prey that would enable salmon to grow sufficiently and quickly enough during the early marine phase. Evidence also indicates that stressors in freshwater environment such as heat and low water levels have a big effect on adult Chinook salmon during upriver pawning migrations, the report said.