North Pacific Fisheries Management Council holds listening session in Nome
North Pacific Fisheries Management Council members, including NOAA Regional Administrator Jon Kurland and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, visited Nome and Unalakleet last week on invitation from Kawerak to hear local observations about marine ecosystems. In a three-hour long session held Thursday evening in Old St. Joe’s, community members expressed a range of emotions, but primarily frustration, about the fish “crisis” going on in Western Alaska.
A sign taped to the tables at which the council members sat said that they wanted to learn about changes in marine ecosystems and how those changes are impacting nutritional, cultural, and economic well-being. As several attendees pointed out, however, many of the observations and impacts have been reported by Native communities for decades.
Despite relatively short notice of the meeting, community turnout was still high, especially considering the meeting was held on a not-rainy day in peak subsistence season. More than 20 people stayed for almost the entire time, and close to half of all participants chose to share their experiences. But the most striking comments were those of the experiences they couldn’t share, such as teaching children to catch, smoke and thrive on salmon. “I can’t teach my son to smoke fish if I don’t have any fish to smoke,” Eva Dickson said.
Repeatedly, the council members, all in official council capacity, responded to community comments with understanding, but with little ability to act upon the suggestions. A recommendation to include a designed seat on the council for a tribal entity is something that only Congress can implement, even if all of the members agree it is “long overdue,” as one called it.
Similarly, as the NPFMC was established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, their jurisdiction is limited to federal waters, ranging from three miles to 200 miles offshore.
Vincent-Lang took notes as Commissioner of ADF&G regarding frustration with intercept fisheries in state waters, whereas the NPFMC is more focused on bycatch. The council has been able to reduce bycatch and was commended by community members for doing so. Community member Tom Gray said it was “good, but not good enough.”
Bycatch, as much emotion as it brought out of the audience, appears to be only a piece of the puzzle. Several council members noted the poor ocean survival of chum salmon, something they’re working on to understand. Scientific studies are only one tool to understand the situation, and community members stressed the value of Indigenous experience in resource management. Rose Fosdick called for a recognition of knowledge not found in science books. Co-management systems, such as exist with whaling and walrus commissions, were brought up by community members multiple times as an effective way to work together.
One piece of the puzzle that several mentioned was the NPFMC system itself. “The current system is broken,” said Melanie Bahnke, CEO and President of Kawerak. Subsistence users are bearing the brunt of conservation efforts, she said, highlighting the injustice in governments criminalizing someone trying to feed their family when the fishery is closed to subsistence but governments only telling commercial fishers on the high seas to move someplace else when those same species are caught. This sentiment was echoed by several community members. “Subsistence users are the last in line, we’re supposed to be the number one priority,” said Tom Gray.
Darlene Jemewouk Katchatag, who introduced herself as a mother of six children she raised on king salmon, spoke forcefully and eloquently, asking council members to call it what it is. “This is a food security problem,” she said. Bahnke compared it to communion for Catholics, an issue greater than the nutritional value of the salmon.
“We hear it,” NOAA’s Kurland said, “we can’t understand it in the same way, but we know the gravity of the issue.”
The council continued to stress the importance of community participation in their meetings, despite several community members saying they never felt valued, and several more noted the travel expenses to go to meetings across the state. The council is looking to continue virtual participation for community members, an effort which began with the pandemic.
Community members adeptly tailored their comments towards what the council is able to act upon. The NPFMC’s job is to minimize bycatch as much as is practicable, but Bahnke and others noted that there is federal money for farmers when a crop fails. A similar mechanism to pay fishermen to stay home would help regrow fish populations. “Zero should be practicable,” she said. In June, the council asked commercial pollock fisheries to voluntarily implement measures to reduce bycatch but didn’t seek regulatory action. “We need your decision making to incorporate biodiversity, not corporate interests,” said Austin Ahmasuk.
Over the last two years, there have been close to 1.7 million chum caught as bycatch, though genetic sequencing suggests that only about nine percent were headed for Western Alaska. While the council said that they were subadults and wouldn’t have been caught by subsistence fishers anyway, Roy Ashenfelter said that didn’t matter. “Smaller doesn’t mean they won’t come back,” he said. “Salmon are salmon. You can put salmon back in our streams.”
Throughout the meeting, council members listened, took notes and responded to questions clearly when asked directly. In their closing comments, all council members thanked the community members for coming and sharing honestly and urged continued participation. Simon Kineen, chair of the council and vice president of NSEDC said anyone with more questions should reach out to him.
With a “We’ll invite you back,” Bahnke closed the meeting.