ECONOMY & ENVIRONMENT JUSTICE Alaska tribal groups sue federal fisheries managers, seeking action on salmon crisis

April 10, 2023

If the lawsuit succeeds, it could mean new restrictions for Bering Sea pollock and cod trawlers

By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon

Two of Alaska’s largest tribal groups have sued the federal government, alleging federal regulators are mismanaging Alaska’s billion-dollar pollock and cod fishery amid an ongoing salmon crisis in central and southwestern Alaska.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, which includes 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which includes 42 tribes in Interior Alaska, filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court against the National Marine Fisheries Service and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. 

The two tribal groups are asking a federal judge to require the agency to update the assessments used to set catch limits for federally managed groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. 

In their complaint, the groups say the federal government is relying on documents first published in 2004 and 2007, before an ongoing crash in salmon returns

The groups are being represented in court by the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

If the data is updated, it could result in significant changes to the groundfish fisheries, said Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover.

“It could look at the amount of fish that they’re allowing boats to catch, it could look at bycatch, it could look at the areas where fishing is allowed. All of those things could be part of the solution,” she said.

Industry officials, reached Monday by phone, declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing unfamiliarity with the case. The federal government has yet to formally respond to the complaint.

Dutch Harbor is the No. 1 fishing port in the United States by volume, in large part because of the vast quantities of pollock — a type of groundfish — landed there by deep-sea trawlers. 

That pollock ends up in fish sticks and fast-food sandwiches worldwide, but the trawlers have come under increasing scrutiny because of the way they pull up (and sometimes kill) salmon in pursuit of other fish. Those salmon are formally called “bycatch.”

With salmon returns plummeting across Western and Interior Alaska, fisheries managers closed subsistence harvests, but trawlers haven’t come under significant new restrictions. 

Over the weekend, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council declined to place a hard cap on the number of chum salmon that trawlers are allowed to discard as bycatch. Instead, they were instructed to limit bycatch to the lowest level possible.

“The pollock fleet keeps trawling up salmon and no adjustments have been made to the overall management approach — this must be addressed,” said Brian Ridley, chief/chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, in a prepared written statement.

“The government allows the commercial industry to carry on unchanged, while the people who have responsibly cared for our precious natural resources for centuries are harmed,” he said.

In the complaint, the Association of Village Council Presidents says, “Salmon is the main fish that families rely on to feed them through the winter. It is foundational to the cultures and ways of life of citizens of AVCP’s member tribes.”

Restrictions on subsistence fishing mean that fish isn’t available, and without summer trips to fish camps, traditional customs and languages aren’t taught as frequently, the complaint states.

While salmon is critical for the region, many Western Alaska villages participate in the allowable annual groundfish catch through the federal government’s Community Development Quota program, and restrictions on groundfish would affect the CDQ groups’ earnings.

Joy Andersen, general counsel for the association, said the association’s participation was authorized by its executive board. By phone, she deferred questions about the possible effect on CDQ groups and said the lawsuit is only one aspect of the association’s approach to dealing with the ongoing salmon crisis.

“This is one of many avenues we’re looking to address,” she said.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that fisheries managers closed subsistence harvests and to clarify how restrictions on ground fish would affect the Community Development Quota program. 

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