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….”
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.