Tribal councils sue over salmon bycatch

The battle over salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea and crashed runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers has taken yet another turn as the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Tanana Chiefs Conference have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in the U.S. District Court to protect subsistence fishing rights.

The lawsuit alleges that when NMFS recently adopted groundfish catch limits for 2023-2024, the agency unlawfully relied on outdated environmental studies and failed to consider monumental ecosystem-wide changes that have occurred in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands ecosystems over the last two decades.

The group that is representing the tribal councils in their lawsuit against NMFS, EarthJustice, put out a statement, saying, “Alaska is facing a historic salmon crisis which is crushing the people and tribes of Western Alaska. Subsistence fishing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions of the state has been severely restricted for over a decade while the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch each year.

“Meanwhile, radical ecosystem changes have negatively affected conditions for Chinook and chum salmon rearing in the ocean. The federal government’s current fisheries management decisions prioritize maximizing groundfish catch over protecting the subsistence rights of Alaska Native peoples who are deeply impacted by those decisions.”

It comes at a time when the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which manages the trawl fleet in the Bering Sea, is being pressured to adopt hard caps on salmon bycatch, which would shut down the fisheries for midwater and bottom species when a certain amount of salmon end up in their nets.

There are nearly a hundred recognized tribes represented by AVCP and TCC, scattered along the rivers and their tributaries, all of which have relied heavily on the salmon runs for subsistence and cultural reasons for millennia, only to see the runs crash in recent years. Those crashes are thought to be caused by numerous factors, including climate change, trawl bycatch and competition for food in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska by hatchery-raised fish, much of it from Russia and Japan.

That throws in yet another wrinkle as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is advancing talks about using hatchery fish to restore the runs.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that the administration last month put money for a restoration hatchery and related studies on a preliminary wish list of earmarks to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. At a meeting of U.S. and Canadian officials in Whitehorse this week, a representative of a First Nations group said that members have expressed surprising openness to the idea.

“There were real concerns that if we have a hatchery, our salmon would no longer be wild,” Elizabeth MacDonald, manager of fisheries at the Yukon First Nations Salmon Stewardship Alliance, told ADN. “There was also this kind of confession that maybe hatchery salmon are better than no salmon.”

Officials involved in hatchery discussions include Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who described the hatchery conversation as in its early stages and acknowledged that the subject is polarizing. Critics argue that putting more juvenile salmon in the Yukon won’t solve the larger problems they cite as driving the salmon population crashes, like bycatch and warming waters in the Bering Sea.

“You want to say goodbye to Yukon River kings? Put a hatchery in,” said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, fisheries and communities program director at the Alaska Venture Fund, a philanthropic group that advocates for sustainable development. “Where have hatcheries ever worked?”

There are a number of hatcheries in Alaska, some of which help supply profitable runs such as in lower Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, but the practice is mainly seen as enhancement, not meant to restore lost runs, and is controversial in some circles.

Cristy Fry can be reached at