Testimony Challenges Exploitation of Alaska’s Area M Commercial Salmon Fleet

Image: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Written testimony now up for consideration by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which is meeting Feb. 20-25 in Anchorage, challenges allowing Area M commercial salmon harvesters to continue to exploit these declining mixed stock fisheries without restriction.

The testimony, from University of Washington fisheries research professor Daniel Schindler, contends that allowing such harvests to continue is antithetical to the sustained yield principle of the Alaska Constitution and in direct conflict with Alaska’s Sustainable Salmon Policy.

The 2022 commercial salmon harvest for Area M was estimated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 160.7 million fish, valued at about $720.4 million. That compared with a 2021 total harvest of 233.8 million fish valued at $643.9 million.

Schindler’s testimony relates to Proposal 40, from a subcommittee of the Fairbanks Advisory Committee, which points to a direct correlation between the high harvest of chum salmon in Area M to the loss of chum escapement to the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region and a total loss of chum subsistence harvest.

Proposal 40 argues that reducing the Area M June fishery would allow opportunity to see if chum escapement in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim will be able to meet escapement goals and allow for a subsistence harvest. Subsistence fishing in this area of Western Alaska, where the population is predominantly Alaska Native, is critical to residents’ socioeconomic well-being.

While it is presently impossible to precisely quantify the biological impacts of Area M interceptions on potential yield from individual western Alaska chum salmon stocks, interceptions are certainly reducing the potential for chum salmon to contribute to meeting escapement goals where they exist and, by extension, are contributing to the reduced abundances in watersheds throughout the region, Schindler stated in his testimony.

“In the face of uncertainty regarding impacts of Area M, the Sustainable Salmon Policy directs the Board to take action that errs on the side of conservation when population viability is threatened to ensure sustained yield management in western Alaska rivers with documented severely depressed escapements. “

Schindler also noted that Alaska statutes require that subsistence use of wild fish be given priority over other consumptive uses and that only after that need is satisfied should the state allow other harvests, including by commercial fisheries. “This statute is currently being ignored as subsistence harvests of chum salmon throughout western Alaska have been severely restricted or closed while commercial fisheries continue to harvest fish from severely declined stocks,” he said. 

Schindler is an ecologist studying causes and consequences of dynamics in aquatic ecosystems and how those dynamics affect the goods and services aquatic systems provide.