Commentary

Marginalizing concerns on Alaska salmon bycatch and the Yukon-Kuskokwim subsistence fisheries

July 30, 2022 5:00 am
Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon dries on a rack near Bethel in 2001. (Photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon dries on a rack near Bethel in 2001. (Photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The past two seasons and now this 2022 season, Chinook and chum fisheries have crashed to historical low-abundance runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Yup’ik and Athabascan peoples, villages and communities have relied upon each fishery from time immemorial for putting healthy foods on the table. Many Canadian First Nations and communities also rely upon the same fisheries on the Canadian side of the Yukon River and headwaters in Yukon and British Columbia. Federal and state management on the U.S. side has not strongly advocated for these subsistence fisheries in the face of commercial fisheries on an industrial scale in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI). The recent State of Alaska budget for fiscal year 2023 (FY23) has only further marginalized already marginalized Alaska Native and First Nations subsistence fisherwomen and men. 

The leadership of the Alaska State Legislature included several budget items in the FY23 capital budget, featuring funding to conduct studies to better understand how salmon bycatch in BSAI commercial fisheries may be affecting the abundance in the Chinook and chum salmon runs up the  Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. 

The gubernatorial administration, however, had their own ideas and the governor line-item-vetoed each salmon bycatch-related budget item, all totalling less than $1.4 million. While line-item vetoes are commonplace in each state budget, what is striking is that the studies were to be conducted by primarily Alaska Native-managed organizations based in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands and Yukon-Kuskokwim regions – the very regions where communities, villages and peoples are most affected by low-abundance salmon runs and arguably salmon bycatch in BSAI fisheries. The governor’s office released text justifications for each line item veto, with a blanket statement describing existing activities by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to understand and address BSAI salmon bycatch. If the case of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game involved success in addressing BSAI salmon bycatch, the line-item vetoes could be digestible. The case, however, is not a resounding success and including additional resources to better understand the issue could not have hurt.

What gives? Why have these critically important salmon bycatch studies been so decisively cut from the FY23 budget?

Because the FY23 state budget is one of the largest in the history of the Alaska State Legislature after the North Slope crude oil price rise related to geopolitical events on the far side of the world, an amount under $1.4 million was barely a blip in the upward trend. A capital budget item funding replacement of diving boards for a high school swimming pool in Anchorage survived the governor’s veto power, only a few budget items down from the proposed bycatch studies all detailed in the budget legislation. This leads many involved in the process to ask: What gives? Why have these critically important salmon bycatch studies been so decisively cut from the FY23 budget? 

The gubernatorial administration last fall organized an Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force. There was news coverage about the process to place leaders from each stakeholder group – commercial fisheries, subsistence fisheries, fish processors, and others  – on the task force. Task forces in state government rarely have biting power when it comes to making changes from the status quo, but they are still important exercises in organizing various experts involved in issue areas like healthcare, homelessness and salmon bycatch. Task forces then make formal recommendations for our leaders in elected offices like the Alaska gubernatorial administration and the Alaska State Legislature. Who were those eventually appointed by the administration to sit on the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force? Too many members are commercial fisheries stakeholders, including those whose boats and trawl nets are taking salmon bycatch in the tens of thousands and in some cases hundreds of thousands each year. One seat was designated as the “Alaska Native” seat, which was ironically filled by a non-Native individual who was further identified as “representing two Alaska Native corporations.”

What activities, studies or recommendations has the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force made for the gubernatorial administration and Alaska State Legislature to consider? After seven meetings starting in January 2022 and the most recent meeting held in July 2022, there have been no publicly released findings, statements, recommendations or anything forward looking by the task force as a whole. The collective revenue and profit margins (for those who are profit oriented) from each organization represented would make $1.4 million a relative drop in the bucket. 

So why have the salmon bycatch-related budget items been line-item-vetoed from the FY23 budget, when Chinook and chum fisheries the past two seasons and now this 2022 season have not been able to provide food on the tables for those who most desperately need it? What will it take for the federal and state governments and agencies to fully understand what is happening, and for any elected leader, any agency, any division, any individual specialist to stand up and say: “We need to advocate for those who subsist on Chinook and chum salmon fisheries on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and we need to do it now in the strongest possible way to protect their food security and their way of life from time immemorial and into the far future”?

What will Yukon-Kuskokwim subsistence salmon fisheries look like in the next five to 10 years? Will salmon runs improve to historical average levels? Will bycatch continue indiscriminately taking salmon from Yukon and Kuskokwim subsistence fisherwomen and men? Even during historical average levels every salmon taken in BSAI as bycatch is potentially a salmon taken from dinner tables on either side of the US-Canadian border. What if Yukon-Kuskokwim salmon fisheries catastrophically crash, never to return to historical averages? The Alaska salmon fishery is one of the last remaining wild, healthy and abundant fisheries in the entire world. Perhaps it won’t be long before we will see supermarket labels stating “Yukon-Kuskokwim farmed salmon” next to “Atlantic farmed salmon.”

Correction: This commentary has been updated to reflect the fact that the majority of the task force members are not trawling industry stakeholders, as well as to include the correct number of task force meetings and the month of the most recent meeting.

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Freddie R. Olin IV
Freddie R. Olin IV

Freddie R. Olin IV is Koyukon Athabascan, born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. With diverse experiences from working on oil rigs on the North Slope and wildland firefighting in both Alaska and the Lower 48 to staffing political offices in the Alaska State Capitol, his favorite is being a family man with his wife and their two children. He is currently employed by Gana-A'Yoo, Limited, an ANCSA village corporation based in Anchorage. His views and commentary do not reflect those of Gana-A'Yoo.

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