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Originally published April 6, 2009 at 10:58 PM | Page modified April 6, 2009 at 11:18 PM

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Chinook limits proposed on Bering Sea pollock fleets

The pollock fishery — North America's largest seafood harvest — would have to shut down if the Bering Sea trawl fleets accidentally caught more than 60,000 chinook salmon under a proposal approved Monday by a federal fishery council

The pollock fishery — North America's largest seafood harvest — would have to shut down if the Bering Sea trawl fleets accidentally caught more than 60,000 chinook salmon under a proposal approved Monday by a federal fishery council.

The high-stakes evening vote in Anchorage by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council followed a weekend of contentious, often emotional testimony by more than 200 people about the scope of the restrictions for the pollock harvest as conservationists and some native villagers lobbied for a much lower chinook limit of some 30,0000 chinook. Instead the council chose the 60,000 limit as the preferred alternative according Jon Warrenchuk, a representative of Oceana, a marine-conservation group.

Chinook are supposed to be reserved for subsistence-sport and commercial-salmon fleets that work in coastal and sometimes inland waters — not the larger trawl fleets that drag their nets through the ocean in search of large tonnages of pollock and other groundfish.

And among Native Alaskans, there is widespread concern about the effects that the trawl fleets may have on declining runs of Yukon chinook, an important subsistence and commercial for some Western Alaska villages.

In many years, the pollock harvest produces more than one million metric tons of pollock that are turned into more $1 billion worth of fillets, surimi paste and other product for a fleet that includes many Washington-based trawlers and factory ships.

But the fleet in 2007 also accidentally scooped up more than 120,000 chinook, and that level of bycatch triggered calls for a chinook limit that if surpassed would trigger an early shutdown of the pollock harvest.

"Chinook salmon are one of the most important fish in Alaska, and we should do all we can to ensure salmon are returning to our rivers to spawn and support salmon fisheries, said Warrenchuk.

Since 2007, pollock fishermen have been working hard to reduce their accidental salmon harvest, sharing information about chinook "hot spots" in the Bering Sea. In 2008, they caught less than 20,000 chinook and so far this year, their accidental chinook harvest is about 10,000 salmon, according to Warrenchuk. Under federal rules, they are not allowed to sell this salmon for profit.

Industry officials have argued for plenty of flexibility in the new regulation, and say with the right incentives they can catch their full quota of pollock and reduce the accidental salmon harvest, wrote John Sackton, editor of Seafoodnews.com, in an article Monday in this online-trade publication.

In addition to the Yukon River, some Bering Sea chinook salmon will eventually migrate to spawn in other river systems, including some in the Pacific Northwest.

The council proposal when finalized will be forwarded to NOAA Fisheries, for final action. At the council meeting, a State Department representative said the salmon limits in the regulation could also have implications for a salmon treaty with Canada, according to Warrenchuk.

"I feel the council was more focused on preserving flexibility for the fleet than for preserving salmon," Warrenchuk said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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