AK - Western Alaska subsistence fishers ask state board to restrict Area M June commercial fishery
At this week’s Board of Fisheries meeting, the Area M fishery is at the center of a debate on how to protect the record-low Yukon River chum salmon runs.
Much of the public testimony centered on the record-low Yukon River chum runs, and specifically on Proposal 140 to reduce the harvest by cutting down commercial fishing time in a mixed-stock fishery to the south. Area M, around the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, is a so-called “intercept fishery” targeting salmon far from their home rivers.
The proposal was put forward by the Fairbanks Advisory Subcommittee on fisheries. It would reduce commercial fishing time in Area M’s South Unimak and Shumagin Islands fishery in an attempt to increase the number of salmon returning to Western Alaska rivers.
Michelle Quillin of Hughes, a Koyukon Athabaskan community on the Koyukuk River, said they can’t rely on the commercial industry to regulate itself. She called the decline in salmon runs on the Yukon “cultural genocide” of Alaska Native people.
Some of the testimony was emotional. Michelle Quillin of Hughes, a Koyukon Athabaskan community on the Koyukuk River, said they can’t rely on the commercial industry to regulate itself. She called the decline in salmon runs on the Yukon “cultural genocide” of Alaska Native people.
“A lot of change needs to happen, but here we only ask that you pass Prop 140 and limit the time Area M has their gear in the water, because that is the only thing that will work,” she said.
Area M has become a focal point in an increasingly urgent debate around how to address declining returns there.
Proposal 140 would resurrect a management plan that was in place in the early 2000s, restricting fishing time in a June fishery that has caught an average of about 500,000 chum over the past 20 years. About half of those chum could be headed to coastal Western Alaska rivers, according to data from the state’s decade-old flagship study on salmon stocks there. The fishery also makes up a significant chunk of Area M fishermen’s income.
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The proposal cited harvest numbers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that show that in 2021, fishermen in that area caught more than 1 million chum, while just 254,000 Yukon summer and fall chum were counted swimming to spawning grounds.
University of Washington fisheries ecologist Daniel Schindler said the proposal is reasonable because it provides windows of time for fish to swim through without being caught. He pointed out that the preliminary results of the state's 2022 genetic studyshows Area M’s South Peninsula harvested about 5% of the chum swimming to Western Alaska rivers. While that sounds small, he said, it could make a big difference for weak runs.
“It sounds like hyperbole, but when the stocks are on the ropes, every fish does count a heck of a lot more than it does when the populations are at high abundance,” he said during the Committee of the Whole on Friday. “In the case of the AYK (Artic-Yukon-Kuskokwim) chum stocks right now, it’s very obvious to everyone in this room that those stocks are at very depressed abundances.”