Two Alaska tribal organizations have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in U.S. District Court in Alaska seeking to reexamine groundfish catch limits for the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. Their objective is “to protect subsistence fishing as the salmon crisis intensifies”. The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) and Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), represented by Earthjustice, have sued the federal government on behalf of nearly 100 Tribes and communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
According to the lawsuit, when NMFS recently adopted groundfish catch limits for 2023-2024, it relied on outdated environmental studies and failed to consider ecosystem-wide changes that have occurred in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands ecosystems over the last two decades. The plaintiffs consider the decision illegal, as it violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Capture limits based on old analysis
In the joint statement from both organizations, AVCP and TCC note that Alaska is facing a historic salmon crisis as the subsistence fishery in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions has been “severely restricted” for more than a decade. However, they also recall that while this is happening “the pollock trawl fishery continues to catch thousands of Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch each year” – a complaint in which they agree with the Alaskan crabbers -. The Yukon-Kuskokwim tribes also assert that the federal government’s current fisheries management decisions prioritize maximizing the catch of demersal fish over protecting the subsistence rights of Alaska Native peoples.
Meanwhile, radical changes in the ecosystem have negatively affected the conditions for chinook and chum salmon rearing in the ocean. According to the tribes, despite these changes and the dramatic effects they have on the people of the region who depend on the marine environment, the National Marine Fisheries Service established demersal fish catch limits based on analyses from more than a decade ago. They think defendants cannot make informed decisions based on severely outdated studies, as these rapid and unprecedented changes in the ecosystem are relevant to fisheries management decisions.
“NMFS has failed at every turn to truly manage the natural resources they are responsible to protect. NMFS needs to do a supplemental environmental impact study to analyze the fisheries management plan considering today’s changing climate and dramatic salmon declines”, said Brian Ridley, Chief/Chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference. “The pollock fleet keeps trawling up salmon and no adjustments have been made to the overall management approach – this must be addressed. 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 added.
Salmon, key to the Yukon-Kuskokwim region
In addition to the continuation of the region’s cultures, the salmon harvest is also particularly important for food security in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. This is one of the most cash-strapped areas of the state and households share salmon with other households and communities to ensure that all community members have enough to eat. However, according to the tribal organizations, western Alaska Chinook salmon stocks have been in decline since at least 2007 and, in the last three years, this has been compounded by collapses in chum and coho salmon stocks.
Adding to these salmon declines, which AVCP and TCC call “catastrophic”, are the effects that climate change is having on the Bering Sea. Warming ocean temperatures, loss of sea ice, shifts in the abundance and distribution of fish species, massive seabird die-offs, decreased nutrient productivity, and, as they described it, “a variety of other changes cascading across the ecosystem”. Despite this, they noted, “fisheries management decisions continue to be based on outdated environmental analyses that do not account for the current environment or the effect fisheries management decisions have on Alaska Native peoples who depend on salmon and other ocean resources to support their ways of life”.
“This litigation is intended to hold the government accountable for its lack of action, lack of urgency and lack of understanding that as our environment changes, catastrophic impacts are occurring in our waters. This lawsuit has been brought to protect the subsistence way of life which is critical to the health and well-being of the tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. The federal government continues its ‘business as usual’ deliberate and ineffective management style as our people suffer and our waters are forever harmed”, said Vivian Korthuis, AVCP Chief Executive Officer.