NOAA Fisheries denies request for emergency action on Bering Sea Chinook Salmon Bycatch

Illustration of a Chinook salmon. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – NOAA Fisheries denied a request for emergency action to institute a cap of zero on Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

The request was submitted on Jan. 17, 2024. It effectively asked Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to close the Bering Sea pollock fishery, which opened on Jan. 20, 2024. It was submitted by:

  • Association of Village Council Presidents
  • Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
  • Tanana Chiefs Conference
  • Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association
  • Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

The petition also requested that the Department of Commerce urge the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to evaluate and update current Chinook salmon bycatch management. 

The Magnuson-Stevens Act allows NOAA Fisheries to undertake emergency action in certain circumstances. 

Three criteria must be met to determine that an emergency exists.

While this emergency policy provides some exceptions to procedural requirements, the underlying action must still comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, including ten national standards.

National Standard 9 requires that fishery conservation and management measures “shall, to the extent practicable, (A) minimize bycatch and (B) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch.”

In evaluating the petition, NOAA Fisheries considered the practicability of a zero-bycatch limit for 180 days, which would effectively close the Bering Sea pollock fishery for the first half of 2024. 

Based on NOAA’s review of the best available scientific information, the petition did not meet all three required criteria.

Most notably, the circumstances do not establish that the requested action would effectively resolve the Chinook salmon crisis in rivers in Western and Interior Alaska.

Nor would the immediate benefits of taking emergency action outweigh the value of addressing Chinook bycatch through the Council process.

Implementing emergency regulations bypasses the normal process for public participation in rulemaking that Congress intended under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Controversial actions with serious economic effects generally should be done through normal notice-and-comment rulemaking.

Further, NOAA examined whether a cap of zero Chinook salmon bycatch would be practicable.

Instituting a cap of zero Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery would effectively close the largest fishery in the United States.

It would adversely impact the people, organizations, and communities who rely on it, including Community Development Quota groups that provide substantial benefits to underserved communities.

The complete elimination of Chinook bycatch is not practicable and the petition did not meet the three criteria for taking an emergency action.

Agency Decision Based on Best Available Science

The best available scientific information indicates that the proposed action is not likely to address the broad changes in the marine and freshwater environment that continue to affect Western Alaska Chinook salmon.

The genetic data from 2023 was presented at the April 2024 Council meeting.

In 2023 11,855 Chinook salmon (26 percent of the total allowable Chinook salmon Prohibited Species Catch limit) were taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

Based on the most recent genetic composition data, in 2023 47.2 percent of Chinook salmon taken as bycatch originated from Western Alaska river systems and less than 1 percent of Chinook bycatch originated front the Yukon River.

Since 2011, NOAA Fisheries estimates the number of Chinook salmon that would have returned to Western Alaska river systems had they not been caught as bycatch in the pollock fishery, represents an annual average of 1.9 percent of total Chinook salmon returns to Western Alaska river systems.

Ongoing research in the Bering Sea shows that declining Chinook salmon returns since 2007 are primarily caused by ecosystem-wide changes associated with climate change.

NOAA continues to monitor and study these changes as part of our ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. Its most recent annual Bering Sea Ecosystem Status Report (2023) indicates that early marine mortality, driven by slow growth, is a leading factor in declining Chinook salmon returns.

The transition from freshwater to marine phase presents a critical phase for salmon to obtain preferred, energy-dense prey in order to grow large enough to evade predation.

Recent ecosystem shifts have reduced the availability of prey that would enable salmon to grow sufficiently and quickly enough during the early marine phase.

Evidence also indicates that stressors in the freshwater environment such as heat and low water levels have a large effect on adult Chinook salmon during upriver spawning migrations.

Closure of the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery in 2024 is unlikely to result in escapement goals being met. It will not substantially increase the likelihood of greater subsistence and commercial harvests.

Additionally, other fisheries in the Bering Sea would continue to contribute to Chinook salmon bycatch. 

Best Path is Through Council Process

The petition also requested that NOAA urges the Council to evaluate and update current Chinook bycatch management. 

Over the last 25 years, the Council and NOAA Fisheries have adopted and implemented several management measures to limit salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

NOAA continues to work with the Council to evaluate existing bycatch minimization measures and to seek improvements within the legal standard of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. 

The most recent Council meeting took place through April 4-9, 2024 in Anchorage, and included annual updates to Chinook and chum salmon bycatch reports.

The Council also reviewed the Bering Sea chum salmon bycatch preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement and accompanying Social Impact Assessment and refined a set of alternatives that will be analyzed to consider new measures to limit bycatch of western Alaska chum salmon.

Importance of Salmon to Western and Interior Alaska Communities

“Our hearts go out to members of the Western and Interior Alaska communities whose lives have been upended in so many ways by the sharp downturn in salmon returns for more than the last decade,” NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said. “We hear you! We know the situation is dire, and we are committed to working with you, the State of Alaska, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the commercial fishing industry, and others to continue to seek meaningful improvements in the status of western Alaska salmon runs.” 

Salmon are a critical food resource in a region that is already food insecure.

Subsistence and commercial harvest restrictions preclude opportunities to pass on traditional knowledge and ways-of-life to younger generations.

NOAA said they recognize the importance of Chinook salmon to the people of Western and Interior Alaska who rely on these fish for their cultural, economic, and social well-being.

NOAA also recognizes the lack of Alaska Native representation on the Council and continues to advocate for equity in nominations and dedicated Council seats.