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Amid record-low chum runs, Board of Fish pares down limits on Area M's June fishery

A boat and tender in Area M.
Courtesy Of Safron Kusnetsov
A boat and tender in Area M.

The Yukon River’s chum salmon runs have returned at record lows over the last three years. At a recent meeting, the Alaska Board of Fisheries debated a contentious proposal that would have reduced fishing time for a controversial and lucrative fishery along the Alaska Peninsula, called Area M.

Area M is a mixed-stock “intercept” fishery that targets salmon further from their spawning grounds than terminal fisheries like Bristol Bay.

Proposal 140 was meant to limit the amount of chum caught in Area M’s South Peninsula fishery in June to allow more chum to return to Western Alaska rivers. The board ended up passing some restrictions on the fishery, but it’s far short of what residents faced with low chum runs were hoping for. And communities that depend on the Area M fishery say they aren’t satisfied either.

People from across Western Alaska testified in support of limiting fishing time in Area M, saying they haven’t been able to feed their families or continue traditions since the chum runs collapsed in 2020.

Tanya Evan of Russian Mission told the board they weren’t asking to close the fishery, but rather spread restrictions more equally across the regions.

“Our subsistence needs have not been met,” she said. “My smokehouse and freezer have not had fish for a few years, which means I wasn’t able to teach my baby sister and daughters our traditional way of life, what we rely on during the winter and especially during the Russian Orthodox Great Lent.”

Board members were divided on reducing fishing time in the June fishery. Some pointed to the state’s subsistence priority and sustainable management policy, while others cited the economic importance of the fishery. In the end, the board narrowly passed an amendment that restricts some fishing time in June and sets up tiered reductions for the purse seine fleet based on the chum harvest. But it was far short of the sweeping restrictions Y-K Delta residents were hoping for.

After the vote, most of the people in the audience walked out of the room in protest.

“It just canceled us, [Alaska, Yukon, Kuskokwim] tribal people, right out,” said First Tribal Chief Robert Walker of Anvik, a community on the Yukon River. “Just like we were a foreign country. And we just kind of got up and left.”

Walker spent almost a week at the meeting and thinks the amendment ignored days of testimony from his region; the proposal the board passed cuts fishing time by a fraction of what they had asked for.

Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian communities stress importance of Area M

But Area M fishermen also testified at the meeting, saying the fishery is a vital part of the communities along the Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutians.

Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin Osterback said harvest limits could mean a huge revenue hit for some of the communities there.

“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. “You can see it in the communities. People are leaving.”

He said it’s tough to say exactly how this season will play out with the new limits.

Area M’s South Peninsula was valued at over $33 million last year, mostly from sockeye harvest and, to a lesser extent, pinks. The June fishery makes up a quarter of Area M’s entire ex-vessel value — the amount of money harvesters initially receive for their catch. In 2021, the average seiner made around $700,000.

Karen Pletnikoff is the environment and safety program administrator for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association — a nonprofit consortium that represents Unangax̂ tribes. With Unangax̂ tribal fishermen making up half the fleet, she said this is a localized issue.

“Our Aleutians East Borough partners are very dependent on fisheries to keep schools open, to keep airports safe, and port and harbor services going so that we can maintain our economies,” she said. “The stakes are high for all of us.”

Harvest caps can drive down the value of the fishery, forcing fishermen to sell their permits. And major cuts to that lucrative June fishery could put the fleet in jeopardy, said Kiley Thompson, president of the Area M Seiners. Still, he said the new restrictions are workable.

“June is our steady, high value sockeye [run], kind of what everybody depends on,” he said. “Without the June fishery, I mean, that's the straw that breaks the camel's back for that region. The June fishery is so important because it’s stayed relatively stable.”

Declining Western Alaska chum stocks, commercial harvests and warming oceans 

Escapements of chum salmon across Western Alaska are down by 80-90% of their historical numbers, said Daniel Schindler, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington who has studied salmon for nearly three decades. He said it’s clear that Area M is not the cause of that decline.

“The reason we can say that so confidently is that chum were down throughout most of Alaska the last two years, so it’s something very regional that seems to have depressed chum stocks,” he said.

At the board meeting, state ecologist Katie Howard presented data showing strong correlations between warming oceans and the “unprecedented” sharp decline of the chum runs. She said recent juvenile chum cohorts were in very poor condition heading into their first winter at sea. Howard said the food sources have dried up, so they’re eating less, and the prey they do get is less nutritious.

“We now know that when sea surface temperatures increase, we see changes in several aspects of salmon biology in the Bering Sea ecosystem,” she said. “We've seen chum salmon exhibit considerably poor condition in very warm years, and more fish have empty stomachs.”

During those warm years, she said chum also shifted their diets to poorer quality food.

Where the fishery does come into play is that fleets are catching some of the fish that are still returning. The state’s preliminary genetic study of last summer’s run put that number at an average of around 5%. Schindler took issue with the state’s estimate.

“It's equally plausible that that estimate could be as high as 10 or 15% on some rivers. So it's highly uncertain,” he said. “What they really should have asked in their report is, ‘Well how bad could this interception rate plausibly be? What's the most plausible, but highest number that our calculations would lead to? And I can guarantee you it would be substantially higher than 5%.”

Schindler said that even if the fleet is harvesting just 5% of the runs, that could have a big impact when they’re as depressed as they are now. Schindler said the reductions the board did pass won’t allow enough time for chum to swim through the district.

“All it’s going to do is fill the district back up with fish that are going to get hammered when the fishery starts up again, because the fish can’t transit through the fishing district in a single day,” he said.

Still, Area M fishermen are trying to limit their chum catch with additional, self-imposed regulations, after fleets caught more than 1 million chum in 2021. To avoid what Kiley Thompson of the Seiners Association called an “irresponsible” harvest, the entire fleet stood down voluntarily last year to let chum pass through. He said they’ll do that again this year — and hopefully be more effective — but it won’t be as easy when there’s less time to harvest.

Thompson doesn’t think the board’s scheduled closures are going to be a very effective method for limiting chum catch, either.

“Area M is admittedly a mixed-stock fishery and just setting a schedule and saying this is going to avoid chums ... I mean, that doesn't mean we're going to avoid chums,” Thompson said. “That only means we're not going to be allowed to catch them on those days.”

Thompson said harvesters can actively see a high number of chum passing through a specific area and respond by shutting down operations based on those stocks and their location — as opposed to a timeline or schedule — creating a more productive window.

ADF&G finfish area management biologist Lisa Fox also told the board she believes the fleet’s voluntary actions did have a noticeable effect on the number of chum salmon harvestedlast year, and that the chum abundance for the June fishery is highly variable.

“So having fishery windows for fish to move through doesn’t ensure that fish are going to move through at that time,” she said. “If the fish are present when the fishery is open, chum will be harvested. If the fishery is open and chum are not present, then fewer chum will be harvested.”

But some, like the University of Washington’s Schindler, point out that the fleet wasn’t monitored, so their self-imposed regulations weren’t independently verified, and say that the proposal to reduce June fishing time by more than half would have given chum a better chance.

Meanwhile, people from Western Alaska who asked for stronger restrictions in Area M’s June fishery are disillusioned with the state’s system.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference said in a news release after the vote that the state had “disregarded” its legal obligation to prioritize subsistence fishermen, and that it will explore other avenues to address the issue.

Henry Hunter, Sr., the vice chairman of Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel, is deeply disappointed in the board; he said it feels like the meeting was stacked against their region. He says the board is prioritizing commercial interests over subsistence needs.

“They basically support commercial fishing. Commercial fishing in Area M is big business,” he said. “They should be the ones that conserve, that manage it for all Alaskans, not only Area M fishing, commercial fishing, but the subsistence users and the Y-K Delta.”

Hunter thinks the decision means the burden of conservation will continue to rest on people in Western Alaska, when it should be the board’s responsibility to manage for everyone.

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Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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