Unalaska, Tribal Entities at Odds Over Chinook Salmon Bycatch

Chinook salmon. File photo.

Increasingly low returns of prized Chinook salmon in Alaska have become a hot new point of contention between the city of Unalaska and tribal entities calling for a cap of zero king salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) advised the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) on Jan. 28 that six tribal entities have asked NMFS to begin an emergency rulemaking under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) that would halt the bycatch of Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea pollock travel fishery.

The NMFS has urged the NPFMC to review the request and provide input. If the council does not review the request, NMFS is expected to independently review it consistent with section 305(c) (1) of the MSA, NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska regional administrator, Jon Kurland told Angel Drobnica, chair of the federal fisheries council.

Two days later, on Jan. 30, the city of Unalaska sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo contending that the request for zero Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery does not meet the criteria for an emergency rule.

The letter, signed by Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr., contends that if approved, the emergency petition would cause irreparable harm to the city of Unalaska, the seafood industry and support sector businesses of fishery-dependent communities across Southwest Alaska.

“Specifically, the pollock processed in Unalaska is the economic engine for the entire community, Tutiakoff said in the letter. “The pollock fishery not only supports the harvesters and processors in Unalaska, but a whole host of support sector businesses that depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood.”

The pollock fishery, the second largest fishery in the world, was estimated by NOAA Fisheries back in 2019 to be worth $1.9 billion and to provide nearly 30,000 jobs nationwide. Alaska pollock itself is the main ingredient in some of the nation’s most popular foods, from fish sticks served in numerous school lunches to imitation crab to Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, which McDonalds has sold since 1962.

Current regulations under the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands provide a total cap for Chinook bycatch of 60,000 fish, with the cap reduced when an in-river index composite of returns to the Unalakleet, Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is below 250,000 Chinook.

In 2023, the in-river index totaled 148,443 Chinook, the lowest regional Chinook salmon abundance on record, tribal entities said.

Tutiakoff said the requirement for zero Chinook bycatch would effectively shut down the entire pollock fishery of the Bering Sea, reducing Unalaska’s fishery landing taxes by an estimated $14 million annually, plus reduced income from the city’s 3% sales tax driven by sale of fuel and other goods and services to the fishing industry.

On the other side of the issue are the contentions of the six tribal entities: The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC), Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA), and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (YRITFC).

They sent a request to Raimondo for the cap on bycatch of Chinook salmon in the pollock fishery.

“Emergency action is necessary to address the severe ecological, economic, social, and public health concerns affecting Western and Interior Alaska, including the region’s communities that depend on salmon,” they said.