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Pollock harvest snares salmon
More than 120,000 chinook were accidentally caught last year, leading to requests for more regulations on trawlers
By Hal Bernton

Article Launched: 02/10/2008 03:05:20 AM PST

SEATTLE -- The Bering Sea trawl fleets last year set a new and unwelcome catch record: Their vessels accidentally snared more than 120,000 chinook salmon as they dropped their nets in pursuit of pollock in North America's biggest seafood harvest.
The chinook are the largest of Pacific salmon, a prized catch in coastal and river harvests in Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Last year's big accidental haul by the pollock fleet has prompted Alaska native groups, the Canadian government and conservationists to push for new restrictions on Bering Sea trawl operations.

"It's unbelievable that there is not a cap on the amount of salmon the pollock fleets can kill," said Jon Warrenchuk, a marine scientist with Oceana, a fisheries conservation group. "It's time for action."

The pollock harvest rules are shaped by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group of state, federal and industry officials who are meeting this week in Seattle. Saturday, they are scheduled to consider several options to reduce the chinook catch, including placing a limit on the chinook harvest that -- if reached -- would terminate the annual Bering Sea pollock harvest.

It's a high-stakes decision. The pollock harvest yields more than $1 billion worth of fish processed into fillets and other seafood products, and it is a mainstay for Seattle-based trawlers in the Bering Sea.

Seattle trawl operators are hoping they can fend off a cap in favor of other options such as
temporary closures of salmon hot spots in the Bering Sea or avoiding fishing in October, when salmon catch rates increase.
"We feel we can achieve the same objectives without that high cost of potentially shutting down the harvest," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, which represent some Northwest trawlers. "But the pressure is on. This is a really emotional issue."

Chinook form a small fraction of the fish that wind up in the trawl nets, and to discourage fishers from targeting them, they cannot be sold. Some are given to food banks.

In recent years, the size of this accidental catch has risen, with last year's record chinook catch more than double the 10-year average. Scientists are unsure why the trawl fleet is catching more chinook, which are born in freshwater then undertake a lengthy migration to feed in the Bering Sea.

Since 2005, researchers have conducted genetic testing of about 1,600 of the trawl-caught chinook to find out where they were from. Initial results indicate that a sizable percentage would have returned to western Alaska, where the chinook are important fish for Alaska natives.

"There's a lot of concern," said David Bill, a Yupik Eskimo leader who came to Seattle to support a salmon cap. "This is our livelihood."

The studies also indicate about 40 percent of the fish caught in a prime summer harvest zone of the Bering Sea would have returned to British Columbia or the Pacific Northwest, according to Jim Seeb, a University of Washington fishery professor who helped conduct the genetic testing.

Those findings have heightened concerns in the Pacific Northwest and California, where chinook are prized by sport, tribal and commercial fishermen. Some chinook stocks are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act and have been the focal point of a lengthy and expensive rebuilding effort.

"For these fish, it does not appear that the trawl harvest is a major factor impeding recovery," said Bill Tweit, a Washington state representative to the Federal Fishery Council. "But that doesn't let us off the hook. You have to address every source of mortality in order to get recovery."

During weekend sessions, the council is expected to select several possible options for limiting the trawl fleet's salmon harvest. A final decision is expected this year.

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