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We Build Alaska

Dispatches from Juneau: A fishery in freefall

People show up when fish are on the line.

Friday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, featuring invited and public testimony for Senator Donny Olson’s (D – Golovin) SB 128, a temporary closure of the Area M commercial fishery, was proof of that.

Olson’s bill would shut down commercial salmon fishing from June 10 to June 30 in the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Islands, and Atka-Amlia Islands, covered under Area M. According to Olson and numerous members of the public testifying in support of the bill, this would provide a reprieve to subsistence chum salmon fisheries on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Many of these subsistence fisheries have seen pitifully low chum return numbers in recent years, necessitating shutdowns and depriving local villages of a previously bountiful food source that’s historically been necessary to their way of life.

The logic behind shutting down the Area M commercial fishery stems from its status as an intercept fishery – in other words, a fishery that primarily catches salmon that are away from their home rivers. Since some of those rivers are in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, Olson’s bill is intended to give subsistence fishermen a fighting chance by restricting one of the alleged impediments to chum escapement numbers – the commercial fishermen.

This bill comes after a 3-4 decision in February by the Board of Fisheries not to significantly restrict commercial fishing in Area M. The decision, in response to Proposal 140 by the Fairbanks Advisory Fisheries Sub-Committee, was discussed repeatedly during Friday’s public testimony session. The board did ultimately decide to restrict fishing time in Area M, but only by around 12%, according to Olson’s staffer Almeria Alcantra, and not the desired 70%.

Advocates for Olson’s bill claimed that the Board of Fisheries had made the wrong decision, and was in violation of their statutory obligations. Opponents of the bill, on the other hand, argued that it was not the Legislature’s place to second-guess the board, and to do so would create a dangerous precedent. Additionally, the argument was made by commercial fisherman and fishing cooperatives that shutting down the Area M commercial fishery in June would be extremely detrimental to the local economy.

Senator Matt Claman (D – Anchorage) – who chairs the judiciary committee – opened by mentioning that the bill in question had provoked the most emails and calls to his office that he’d experienced in eight years in the Legislature. And indeed, in addition to a crowded committee room and 45 minutes of time for testimony, there were still more than 70 people waiting in the phone queue when the meeting ended.

Senator Olson, speaking in defense of SB 128 during the initial reading, said he’d gotten numerous complaints from his constituents about the state of the subsistence fishery, prompting him to draft the bill. The bill’s sponsor statement tied the massive drops in chinook and chum salmon numbers to record high harvests in Area M. Olson also tied the shutdown of the Area M fishery to the Russian overharvest of sea otters during the 1700s, and former Governor Bill Egan’s closure of Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet during the 1960s due to overfishing.

“The fish camps that were once vibrant,” Olson said of his experiences on the Yukon and Kuskokwim, “they’re empty.”

If something isn’t done to curtail the drastic drop-off in salmon numbers, Olson believes that the fishery will be extinct. If the fishery goes, Olson said his constituents in the region will be forced to move into Anchorage and Alaska’s other urban areas, where energy and food are cheaper, but where they are less equipped to work and thrive.

Doug Vincent-Lang, the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, was invited to testify, and claimed the department was equally concerned about the low fish count. However, Vincent-Lang questioned what could be considered the acceptable level of harvest in Alaska’s numerous mixed-stock fisheries, if the fishery in question could be said to have an impact on a closed subsistence fishery like the Yukon-Kuskokwim.

“Should all fisheries be closed if they harvest even a single chum salmon, that is destined for Western Alaska, when these fisheries are closed or restricted?” Vincent-Lang asked.

Vincent-Lang also referenced a genetic study performed on South Alaska Peninsula chum salmon, which showed that about 58% of chum salmon harvested commercially in June 2022 were of Asian origin, and around 18% were of coastal Alaskan origin (including Bristol Bay, the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, and Norton Sound). In other words, around 96,000 summer chum from Coastal Alaska were harvested in the Southern Alaska Peninsula commercial fishery – or about 6% of the total summer chum commercial fishery.

This information, Vincent-Lang said, was passed along to the Board of Fisheries when they made their decision in February. The data informed their decision not to curtail the commercial season as per Proposal 140’s request. However, some restrictions were put in place, including trigger limits, and certain areas closed to commercial boats, as outlined in Proposal 136. These restrictions are intended to both allow for more chum escapement and to allow the Department of Fish and Game to study how the Yukon-Kuskokwim fisheries are affected by Proposal 136’s increased commercial restrictions. However, if SB 128 passes, Vincent-Lang said, then any opportunity to conduct more genetic testing and impact studies will be lost.

Karen Gillis, from the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, provided invited testimony. She advocated for SB 128, arguing that the state should solve the problem that the Board of Fisheries did not. Pointing to years of plummeting subsistence fisheries and low escapement goals, Gillis said that, as per Alaska law, subsistence should be prioritized over commercial fishing – and that Fish and Game was not living up to their end of the bargain.

Public testimony oscillated between residents and representatives of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region asking the Legislature to consider subsistence when making their decision, and commercial fishermen and cooperative representatives arguing that the June closure would essentially bankrupt them, and have ripple effects throughout the Southwest Alaska economy.

Abby Fredrick, representing Silver Bay Seafoods – an Alaskan commercial fishermen’s cooperative – pointed to climate change as one of the main drivers of the chum salmon subsistence crash, and called SB 128 punitive, claiming it wouldn’t actually benefit the intended fishery.

Several commercial fishermen called in and echoed this statement, saying they had already purchased thousands of dollars of gear, fuel, and food for the June fishery, and to close it down would significantly affect their financial well-being, and the well-being of thousands of households in the region and beyond. Additionally, taxes on the Area M fleet help support local infrastructure, so to close it down would create a larger borough deficit, and potentially impact services for a remote population.

Secondary to the actual fisheries impact question itself was a fear that the Legislature would use SB 128, if passed, as precedent to override the Board of Fisheries decisions in the future. Complex environmental decisions and scientific expertise on the part of the board should not be overridden by the Legislature, which does not have the time and energy to devote to these aforementioned complex decisions, one member of the public argued.

Whether SB 128 will positively impact the Yukon-Kuskokwim subsistence fisheries is, at the end of the day, directly tied to how many salmon are actually of coastal Alaskan origin. If Fish and Gam’s testing is to be believed, the percentage seems to be fairly small. However, it was argued during public testimony that even small percentages of the summer commercial catch could have large effects on the subsistence harvest, where the runs are comparatively smaller.

There’s much to consider with 128, and regardless of how the Legislature decides, one population – subsistence or commercial – will be affected. I’ll refrain from arguing one way or the other, both because I think that’s beyond the scope of this particular column, and because I believe there were compelling points made on both sides of the issue. Regardless, someone with more data, information, and institutional knowledge will eventually make the decision – in a tangible way, the Board of Fish already has. Whether the Legislature second-guesses that decision and passes SB 128 in some form or another this session, is (for now) in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Floridawoman
1 year ago

Nice summation, without biased commentary.

Thumbs up

Dan
1 year ago

Also area M harvests of other species of salmon headed to different regions that are in trouble would possibly get some long past due relief

Willy Keppel
1 year ago

This has been a long time coming. I live on what should be one of the best fishing rivers in Alaska at Quinhagak. We are at the point of either making major changes to the Subsistence and Commercial harvests or the rivers are going to be bare. Everyone is going to feel the pain. Subsistence in the coastal saltwater needs to be regulated. 24/7 netting is every bit as destructive a method as the wide open intercept fishery. I support this effort by Senator Olson. The one thing that this will tell us, just by the escapement that hits the… Read more »

Akwhitty
1 year ago
Reply to  Willy Keppel

If this does not pass the people that live in the bush may have to resort to welfare and substitutes to support their and the family’s lifestyle.

Keenan Roger Ekegren
1 year ago
Reply to  Willy Keppel

Yeah hopefully it they make it a lottery fishery let a few boats fish they make more money less people fish that means the fish won’t be wiped out then the next year’s new lottery put names in a hat and u know the people that get drawn will get rich and they won’t have to risk everything u can pick your days better weather better product I mean what would they have to lose at this rate we are going to lose everything over a few greety people my kids want fish I think it’s a big joke because… Read more »

Keenan Roger Ekegren
1 year ago

Yeah their is a lot of greed in commercial fishing they need to shut down for good anything that can catch 100k pound’s a hual is got to be stopped it’s all going to China anyways I’m pretty sure they are not only killing your fish our fish from Washington follow the herring to ak and now we have been shut down for years and they are still on decline soon at it gets shut down for a few years it still won’t be enough because the commercial fishing industry doesn’t leave nothing behind if they can’t keep kings they… Read more »

Alice D Mathlaw
1 year ago

Stop the commercial fishing and help the subsistence fishing. China fishing boats are seen in our territory and nothing is done..this is really upsetting.
If the Canadian are getting our first run,and only a few make it,..why can’t they farm their own. All fish know where they are going by the size of the eggs..I believe more of what the elders tell me then what science says..

Middle Yukon
1 year ago

Fish and feathers is run by the big commercial fishery in Seattle not Alaska they don’t want to tuch big commercial fishery if this bill passes its a small victory for the subsistence users and if the escapements are up well fish and feathers will be seen as all there studys and millions of dollars put into them were a waste