Two chum salmon show the distinctive stripes that emerge after they enter freshwater to spawn. Chum salmon are important to the diets of Indigenous residents of Western Alaska. (Photo provided by NOAA)
For years, residents along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have accused fishers operating in marine waters north of the Alaska Peninsula of intercepting too many river-bound salmon, sometimes in hidden ways.
Now a trooper enforcement campaign by the Alaska State Troopers wildlife division gives some credence to those accusations.
The campaign, carried out in June and July in the region known as Area M, resulted in nine citations issued to captains and crew members for allegedly dumping unwanted salmon overboard, the Alaska State Troopers said in a statement issued Thursday.
The species of discarded salmon was not disclosed, but it was potentially chum salmon bound for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, where there have been devastating chum crashes in recent years.
“I think many people from along the Yukon knew it happened,” Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. “It does occur, and we’re glad it’s finally getting acknowledged.”
Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, referred to the practice as “chum chucking.” The fishermen want sockeye, and “they don’t want to keep the chum salmon, so they throw it overboard,” he said.
The trooper citations add to the long-simmering dispute over salmon that travel through the Bering Sea to spawning grounds in the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages. As chum and Chinook salmon returns in the rivers have dwindled and harvests have closed, residents have blamed Area M interception for contributing to those problems. But the Area M commercial fisheries are vigorously defended by Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian residents who depend on them.
Attempts to resolve the disputes reached the Alaska Board of Fisheries last February. The board considered proposals to restrict Area M fishing and ultimately approved rules that the Yukon-Kuskokwim advocates characterized as too weak but that the Aleutians East Borough, the regional government for many communities dependent on Area M harvests, deemed appropriate.
The meeting was emotion-charged, with both Yukon-Kuskokwim fishers and fishers from the Alaska Peninsula and eastern Aleutians testifying about the need to protect their well-being, communities’ stability and cultures.
Scientists believe that the Yukon and Kuskokwim salmon crashes have more to do with climate change impacts in the ocean and possibly in the upriver spawning areas than with bycatch, the term for unintended catches of fish during harvests of other targeted species. However, interceptions could be exacerbating the problem, some say.
“We absolutely do not condone this type of reckless and illegal behavior. We believe the State of Alaska’s enforcement division will handle this to the harshest extent of the law,” the borough statement said.
Area M is a difficult place to conduct fishery patrols, said Major Aaron Frenzel, deputy director of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
Unlike the Bristol Bay or Kodiak fisheries, where vessels can be crowded together and where troopers aboard a patrol vessel can easily see practices and behavior, the Area M harvests are conducted by boats separated by vast distances.
A trooper helicopter proved key to the Area M enforcement effort, he said. But availability of that helicopter and other assets limits any enforcement in the region because wildlife troopers need to patrol other fisheries, Frenzel said. That means some strategic movement of ships, aircraft and people to the places where they are most needed, he said.
“It’s kind of like a chess game,” he said.
The outcome of the citations is yet to be determined. The fishers cited, some of them from Washington state, have court appearances scheduled for later this month in Anchorage. The violation is considered a class A misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $15,000 and jail terms of up to one year, Frenzel said.
The Board of Fisheries is not expected to hold another Area M-focused meeting for three years, according to the meeting cycle. The next scheduled meetings are focused on Cook Inlet and Kodiak fsh.
Citizens may ask the board to consider subjects outside of the normal cycle. The next deadline to request that consideration is Aug. 14, and requests are to be considered at the board’s scheduled October work session.
Aside from their special Area M operation, wildlife troopers conducted their regular summer patrols in the Bristol Bay fishery, source of approximately half of the world’s harvested sockeye salmon. The Bristol Bay operation involved multiple patrol boats and aircraft, the trooper statement said. Over 400 commercial vessels working in Bristol Bay were boarded, with thousands of fishermen contacted, 150 citations issued and thousands of pounds of salmon seized, the trooper statement said.
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