Long past time for Alaska Tribes to have voting seats at every management table


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A statement from our client, the Bering Sea Elders Group, and their Western and Interior Alaska partners (January 27, 2022).
Photo of Alaska Chinook salmon

In the face of devastating multi-species, multi-river salmon declines, Kawerak, Inc., the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Bering Sea Elders Group, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing over 118 Alaska Tribes, petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to take emergency action to eliminate Chinook salmon bycatch and set a cap on chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery in the 2022 season. This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied this request, ignoring the critical need to conserve salmon now and the key role salmon play for Tribal food security and cultural survival.

“The process is not working to the benefit of our Tribes. To deny the Tribes’ request for emergency action is to deny every family on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta our subsistence Way of Life. It is a desperate situation for our communities, and if we are to move forward from this point, what alternative do Tribes have to work towards assurances that salmon return to the rivers to feed our families?”
– Vivian Korthuis, CEO, Association of Village Council Presidents

• In 2021, the Bering Sea pollock fishery caught 15,000 Chinook salmon as bycatch, and they caught more than twice that amount in 2019 and again in 2020.

• In 2021, the Bering Sea pollock fishery caught more than 500,000 chum salmon as bycatch, the second highest on record in 30 years. Under current rules, in 2022 the pollock fleet is legally allowed to catch up to 45,000 Chinook salmon and an unlimited number of chum salmon.

Our communities faced a crushing salmon disaster in 2021. Our salmon future, and the interconnected health of our communities, rivers and oceans, depends on the salmon who are right now swimming in the Bering Sea, poised to return to our rivers to breed and to feed our cultures and our people. We need action now to reduce salmon bycatch in 2022. Neither we nor the salmon can wait years for NMFS and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to take action while Tribes lose the salmon to which our lives and cultures are tied.

In this time of salmon crisis, every single salmon returning to our rivers matters. Any portion of Western Alaska salmon being caught is substantial and it is grossly inequitable to allow the pollock fishery to catch and waste thousands of Chinook salmon as bycatch while communities get zero fish for subsistence. While there are many factors contributing to the declines, bycatch is one of the few which we can control. We have already reduced in-river harvest, we must reduce other impacts including bycatch to restore, maintain, and conserve salmon runs.

We are at this juncture because we are operating in a federal management system which systemically excludes Alaska Native Tribes from decision-making and ignores our millennia-long history of stewardship and connection with the Bering Sea ecosystem. Sending us back to attempt to work through this broken system is a fool’s errand. We call on NMFS and the federal government to put their promises around equity into practice. It is long past time for Alaska Tribes to have voting seats at every management table, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

When it comes to salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery, we can all agree that our ultimate goal should be zero bycatch. Our intent is not to shut down the pollock fishery, but to set a target which can help to recover our salmon runs. We call on NMFS to work collaboratively with Alaska Tribes to restore, maintain, and conserve our wild salmon runs. NMFS has the authority and the responsibility to reduce salmon bycatch, prioritize Tribal participation in management, and support Tribal research and monitoring. There is no time to waste―our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being is connected to and shaped by this critical resource.

Original Tribal Statement (December 21, 2021):

Tribal communities throughout Western and Interior Alaska face historic salmon shortages after a summer in which subsistence fishing was either shut down or severely restricted.  NARF’s client, the Bering Sea Elders Group, joined a coalition of Alaskan tribes and tribal organizations calling for emergency action to restrict salmon bycatch. The collapse of salmon runs has prevented tribes from harvesting the amount necessary for subsistence fishing and is contributing to severe cultural, ecological, economic, social, and public health concerns. A statement from the coalition of tribes and tribal organizations representing tribes from the Kuskokwim, Yukon, Bering Strait, Pribilof, and Interior regions:

This past summer, fish racks, smokehouses, and fish camps across the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and Norton Sound region stood empty.  After a multi-species, multi-river salmon collapse, our people are facing a winter without the Chinook and chum salmon which are critical to the lifeblood of our over 110 regional tribal communities and are central to our cultures.

Tribes throughout our region face historic salmon shortages after a summer in which subsistence fishing was either shut down or severely restricted.  Meanwhile, the industrial Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet is allowed to inadvertently catch and waste these same Chinook salmon.  While our Tribes were forced to sacrifice our critical subsistence harvest, in 2021 the Bering Sea pollock fishery caught 15,000 Chinook salmon and over 500,000 chum salmon.  Under current rules, in 2022 the pollock fleet is legally allowed to catch up to 45,000 Chinook salmon and an unlimited number of chum salmon.

Today, Kawerak, Inc., the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the Bering Sea Elders Group, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to take emergency action to eliminate Chinook salmon bycatch and set a cap on chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery in the 2022 season.

“The Secretary of Commerce has the authority to issue emergency regulations to ensure that salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery is not the final straw for our salmon runs.  The Secretary has a trust responsibility to the Tribes, and protecting the salmon that form the foundation of our community’s food security and culture is of the utmost importance.  Now is the time to take action.”
– Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, Kawerak, Inc.

“Our salmon runs and our communities are at the breaking point.  We can’t risk the chance of high bycatch in these dire times.  We need to do everything possible to save our Chinook and chum salmon runs, and we all need to do our part to restore our salmon runs, and eliminating bycatch is critical.”
– Brooke Woods, Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

 

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