Money fish rule



Federal researchers sorting salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea/North Pacific Fisheries Management Council photo

Once more trawlers in the Bering Sea have gone to court in an effort to stop the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) from billing them for the costs of managing Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea.

The Chinook are bycatch in a $1 billion pollock fishery that supplies much of the U.S. demand for fish sticks, fast-food fish fillets and imitation crab, and sells a lot of roe to Asia. The fishery takes place out of sight of almost everyone in the most remote, windswept sea in the northern hemisphere. 

For the trawlers, the Chinook are nothing but a headache. Their pollock fishing is restricted by time and area to protect the mainly young salmon. The annual bycatch of the kings, as Alaskans most often call the biggest of the Pacific salmon, is capped at 45,000 to 60,000 depending on whether runs are forecast to be weak or strong.

If the cap is exceeded, the trawl fishery is shut down. And on top of this, the trawlers are expected to pay for the management program.

They don’t like it.

U.S. Commerce Department “cost recovery regulations, as applied to catcher-processor sector participants violate the (Magnuson-Stevens Act) MSA and (Administrative Procedures Act) APA, are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in
accordance with law, and  are in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority or limitations and short of statutory right,” the trawlers charged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Alaska.

The lawsuit did not stipulate the size of the bill the NFMS sent to trawlers, but a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the NMFS, pegs the 2016 “catcher/processor segment” costs at about $140,000. 

The NMFS is the federal fish manager operating under the auspices of NOAA, an agency within Commerce billed as “America’s environmental intelligence agency.” 

The NOAA report says the highest “program costs were attributed to the Alaska
Fisheries Science Center (in Seattle), which includes the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Program and the Economic and Social Sciences Research Program. The Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Program operates the North Pacific Observer Program.”

The observer program puts independent observers on the trawlers to track exactly what they are catching and prevent unwanted bycatch from being dumped overboard when no one is watching.

“The Economic and Social Sciences Research Program administers the Chinook Salmon Economic Data Report Program, which provides NMFS with data to assess the effectiveness of the Chinook salmon bycatch management measures,” the report says.

The trawlers first challenged the federal cost recovery plan in February of last year, arguing that federal regulators lacked the legal authority  “to impose cost recovery on the catcher-processor sector….” That suit is set for oral arguments on January 22 of next year.

The latest suit was filed by the CP Salmon Corporation, and the catcher-processors Northern Jaeger and Glacier Fish Company. CP and Glacier Fish are Seattle-based. Northern Jaeger is licensed as a limited liability company in Delaware.

Much of the Alaska commercial fishing business is based in Seattle.


Big money/little people

Trawlers drag hundreds of millions of pollock out of the waters of the Bering Sea annually and a few tens of thousands of Chinook. The harvest has gone on for a long time, but about a decade ago it became a hot button item when the number of kings returning to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers of Western Alaska plummeted.

The few people hanging on in small communities along those rivers are significantly dependent on subsistence lifestyles, and king salmon are a key part of their subsistence.

In 2008, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages in-river and near-coastal fisheries, cut commercial harvests of Yukon kings to almost nothing. The commercial Chinook fishery on the Kuskokwim River was then already long gone, and by 2009 it would be the same story on the Yukon.

Then came restrictions on subsistence harvests. With king runs weak and getting worse, trawlers became an immediate political target.

“King salmon bycatch – fishing jargon for the unintentional capture of a species – in the Bering Sea pollock fishery rose last year to a record 122,000, up from a previous 5-year average of 57,333,” the Associated Press reported in 2008. “Increasingly, they have been scooped up by the massive Bering Sea pollock fleet, a global source of frozen fish sticks, fillets and imitation crab, and the largest fishery by volume in the U.S.

“The trend is deeply troubling for people living along the great rivers of western Alaska….”

That very same year, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council began considering a cap on the bycatch of Chinook. By 2010, a cap was in place and the NMFS was ordering trawlers to form a nonprofit to take their Chinook bycatch and distribute it to the needy, as well.

“…CP Salmon Corporation  (as in catcher-processor) is a Washington nonprofit
corporation bringing this action on its own behalf and on behalf of its members,” the latest lawsuit says. “The corporation was formed in 2010 as a requirement of defendants’ regulations mandating ‘one entity to represent the catcher/processor sector (of the Bering Sea directed pollock fishery for purposes of receiving and managing transferable Chinook salmon prohibited species catch  allocations on behalf of the catcher/processors….”

SeaShare, a Seattle NGO, is involved in distributing a lot of the fish. Glacier Fish Company and the “Crew of the Northern Jaeger” are donor partners. 

Billing itself as the “seafood industry’s answer to hunger,” SeaShare has been active in helping respond to natural disasters across the country. 

Stephanie Madsen, the executive director for the Seattle-based At-Sea Processors Association, in 2013 told the Alaska state House Special Committee on Fisheries the Bering Sea Chinook shipped south to SeaShare are passed along to Food LifeLine.

Food LifeLine distributes food to 300 food banks and shelters in western Washington, including a considerable number in Seattle. “Food LifeLine, our local partner, moved almost 500,000 pounds of high-protein fish last year,” SeaShare reported on its website in 2013.

The year before was a tough one for subsistence  Chinook fishermen on the Yukon and Kuskokwim River, and by 2013 they were calling for a lower cap on the trawl bycatch along with a boycott of McDonalds.

Myron Naneng, leader of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents in  remote Western Alaska, targeted McDonalds because its Fish McBites are made from pollock, the main catch of the trawl fishery. He noted McDonald’s promoted the McBites as made from fish from a sustainable fishery even though the same fishery was, in Naneng’s view, doing significant damage to Western Alaska Chinook runs.

There is no evidence to support that conclusion. The trawl bycatch represents a tiny faction of overall Chinook numbers and many of the fish trawlers catch are young; no one can even guess how many might survive to eventually return to spawning streams.

But Chinook bycatch poses a continuing political problem for trawlers. The latest lawsuit, in which Madsen is the lead plaintiff suing Commerce, is likely to produce some interesting reactions in some parts of Alaska.







8 replies »

      • Talk about a cop-out!
        Frankly, there is a lot of difference between a mature spawner and a king salmon fry and the term “young fish” doesn’t begin to come even close to what they may have intended IMO. Their intent IMO was to indicate that somehow these “young fish” should not be considered as potential spawners due to their being preyed on-were they fry, this might make some sense but I doubt that many fry are picked up in those nets. Since no information given on survival rate for these “young fish”, their intent is suspect IMO.

  1. In most cases Observers are used to count the Chinook by catch. That system is gamed by the trawlers. Nets are pulled when observers are sleeping, when they are distracted and Chinook and, btw, Halibut are dumped, some just look the other way, and others know that their high pay jobs paid for by the trawlers are dependent on not having the fishery closed because of over harvest of Chinook. As for Stephanie Madsen, her claim that “high protein fish” are distributed to places in the lower 48 is almost laughable. What is meant by that term, ‘high protein fish’? The vast majority of the by catch whether Halibut or Chinook are simply discarded overboard. I personally saw some net pulls years ago. And it is astounding the number of different non targeted species that come onboard and then discarded. But always remember that this fishery is managed by the Council that is made up,predominantly, by industry reps and users. Until
    There is a real federal recognition of the value to the nation of recreational and subsistence fisheries, not much will change. That is until Chinook are listed under the ESA. And that could happen.

    • As someone who has worked in the industry for years, I can say with absolute certainty that you have no idea what you are talking about, Flyguy. I have no intention of debating what you think happens on an Amendment 91 pollock trawler in the Bering Sea on someone’s online blog, except to say that your “opinion” of what happens couldn’t be further from the truth. Period. If I had more time, I would elaborate, but I find that ‘comment section’ discussions are seldom productive- so I’ll leave it there…

      • John: that’s a big of a cop-out. if you think the observer program is good, say so. if you think we’ve improved on discard rates, which everyone should want to approach zero, provide some data. this comment session is semi-moderated as i have time. it’s not about people calling each other names. it is about people providing information if they have it.
        i confess i’ve always had something of a prejudice against trawl gear because it fishes dirty, but the Canadians have show that with IVQs, good observer coverage and ever-improving technology it can be cleaned up significantly. and there is no doubt as to the efficiency of trawling.
        so instead of telling others they “have no idea what (they) are talking about,” it would be more useful to them and everyone else to explain what they got wrong.

      • “As someone who has worked in the industry for years”, I can certainly understand your unwillingness to acknowledge that there is gaming in the observer coverage. Seldom
        has there been greater incentive to undercount Chinook and Halibut bycatch. I know that ethical trawlers will pick up
        and move to another area if they start getting too many non targeted species. And that’s to be applauded. But by the time they recognize the problem they have caught too many of the protected species. And I know there are ethical captains in the fleet. That do the right thing. But woe be it to the vessel captain that takes the fleet over the bycatch limit. Electronic monitoring has promise. But it too has its limits, particularly in dark, rough and wet conditions. Once there is enough of a penalty beyond shutting the fishery down and adequate enforcement there will be more accurate counts. Take a few federal licenses or press criminal charges and there might be more compliance. That will not happen with industry running the Council, however. Nobody that knows anything about the mid water trawl fisheries, outside of the participants in the industry you are part of, believes the counts are accurate.

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