An Athabascan woman who lived along the Yukon River in the interior of Alaska once told me that in her village, during summertime “Salmon bones fell from the sky. They landed on roofs and four-wheelers. They covered the roads and boardwalks.”
I thought this had a fairy tale quality to it, but this phenomenon was due to bald eagles traveling to and from salmon runs, gorging themselves on the plentiful fish and dropping the bones as they passed by. These bones fertilize the soil, which helps the trees that shade the rivers where the young salmon spend the early part of their lives.
The San Francisco Bay area currently has anchovies falling from the sky. Due to colder water, the deep upwells along the California Coast are richer than that ever, sending krill and phytoplankton to the shallower water – so the anchovies have lots to eat and their population is exploding. The birds are stuffed – and dropping anchovies from the sky as the pelicans soar over San Francisco.
Lots of anchovies mean that the salmon have plenty of food to make their journey back. The birds are so full they are dropping the fish. And it's easy picking for the humpbacks who feed on anchovies. This is exciting news in a time when most news about the environment, particularly the ocean, seems dire.
On that note, salmon bones are no longer falling from the sky along the Yukon. In fact, salmon are not returning to the Yukon in numbers large enough for the indigenous people to fish them commercially or even for subsistence. The salmon fishery was closed last year and most likely will be again this year.
One major contributor to this is the Bering Sea Trawl Fleet that targets pollock- the white fish that shows up in MacDonald’s fillet-o-fish sandwiches; it’s also made into surimi, which is brushed with red dye and served as crab or “krab”. These boats take a staggering amount of pollock out of the Bering Sea each year, in 2020, commercial fleets landed 3.2 billion pounds of it, making it one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world. These are large, corporate-owned vessels out of Washington State, fishing in a remote region in Alaska where native people primarily survive on subsistence and small boat commercial fishing.
Even more egregious than taking that many fish of one species from an ecosystem, is that an estimated 141 million pounds of bycatch are discarded each year by the Bering Sea Trawl Fleet. The quota for halibut to be thrown back overboard dead is higher than the quota for small commercial fish boats statewide. The allowable bycatch for King Salmon in 2022 is 45,700 fish – in weight that’s about 700 thousand pounds of king salmon. The bycatch for chum or keta and other kinds of salmon is unlimited. The allowable bycatch for halibut is 5.48 million pounds in 2022. Other species are listed below.
One main reason that trawlers in the Bering Sea have been allocated such enormous fishing quotas is that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council -- responsible for setting catch quota of pollock and bycatch limits for other species-- is comprised of people who work for industrial trawling boats. They themselves are setting the allowable bycatch for their own industry. Since the trawl fishery is so lucrative and our society values extractive, short-term profit for a few over long-term sustainability that benefits the greater good, the government and fisheries management agencies are not stopping this.
As consumers, the place for us to start is to choose seafood differently. Right now, there’s wild salmon arriving on the West Coast from Alaska to California caught by small, independently owned and operated small boats, and anchovies are in abundance – so boycott Alaskan pollock and let places know why.
So let’s think of those fish dropping from the sky as harbingers of hope. Testimony to a resilient ocean. And let's work towards stopping this egregious waste on the Bering Sea.
To learn more about pre-approved bycatch for Bering Sea Trawlers, visit here.
The STOP Bering Sea Bycatch Facebook Group has updates: https://www.facebook.com/groups/181111123119023/about
The “pre-approved” 2022 bycatch numbers for the Bering Sea trawl fleet set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are as follows:
Chinook Salmon bycatch: 45,700 fish (there is no hard cap for chums or other salmon)
Halibut bycatch: 5.48 million pounds (For the Gulf of Alaska: 3.76 million pounds)
Herring bycatch: 6 million pounds
Snow Crab (opilio): 5.99 million individuals (equal to 7.8 million pounds; the catch for crabbers is 5.6 million pounds)
Tanner Crab (bairdi): 3.07 million individuals (6,140,000 pounds; crabbers can take 1 million pounds)
Red King Crab: 80,160 individuals (520,000 pounds; the fishery is closed to crabbers for the first time in 25 years)
There is no bycatch cap for sablefish (black cod) in the Bering Sea or Gulf; the Gulf also does not have any bycatch caps for any species of crab.