Alaska Native, Fishing, Conservation Groups Support Western Alaska Tribes’ Lawsuit Aimed At Feds’ Fisheries Management

Several Alaska-based groups released the following joint statement over an Alaska Native conglomerate that field an amicus curiae brief in support of a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service:

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—Alaska Native and fisheries conservation organizations have filed an amicus curiae “friend of the court” brief supporting the lawsuit brought by the Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference, and city of Bethel against federal fisheries managers. The lawsuit alleges the National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act by authorizing large-scale industrial fishing companies to catch billions of pounds of fish without appropriately considering the impacts in light of rapid environmental changes, ongoing species collapses, and closures on in-river salmon fisheries.

Native Peoples Action, Ocean Conservancy, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, SalmonState and Alaska Marine Conservation Council filed the brief in United States District Court in Alaska Nov. 22. If successful, the litigation could lead to better consideration of the impacts of industrial fishing and precautionary measures designed to minimize bycatch and killing of species like salmon, herring, crab and halibut.

“Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim river salmon populations are in crisis, devastating food security and threatening food sovereignty, endangering ways of life central to who we are as Indigenous people,” said Laureli Ivanoff, Executive Director for Native Peoples Action.  “Meanwhile, as our ability to harvest salmon is shut down or severely reduced, NMFS is relying on an outdated ecological analysis to increase the quota for the trawl fleet. With this potential ruling the court has the opportunity to set fisheries management on the right track for a better future for all Alaskans.”

“Fisheries managers and associated scientists are telling the public that everything is changing wildly and rapidly in Alaska’s oceans, but when it comes to industrial-scale trawling they are locked into an outdated and inflexible management system not at all responsive to those changes,” says SalmonState’s Tim Bristol. “Everyone but the trawlers are giving something up. In some cases, people are giving up everything. Incredibly, at the same time, the agency is actually increasing the trawlers’ catch. We support this lawsuit because we see and feel the sense of urgency all around us. We need to stop the bleeding now.”  

“We are fully supportive of AVCP and TCC’s litigation,” said Becca Robbins Gisclair, Senior Director of Arctic Programs for Ocean Conservancy. “The North Pacific ecosystem is undergoing rapid and fundamental change. The National Marine Fisheries Service and North Pacific Fishery Management Council must make fundamental changes to prevent the collapse of our once-vibrant ocean ecosystems and the communities that have been part of them for millenia.”

“We know that many factors––including a lack of ecosystem-focused management of trawl fisheries––are contributing to widespread changes in the North Pacific, like the prolonged declines of Kuskokwim and other Western and Interior salmon stocks,” said Kevin Whitworth, Executive Director for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “On the Kuskokwim, we see the need to move away from the National Marine Fisheries Service and North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s outdated management practices so they are more responsive to ecosystem changes, Tribal and community needs, and national legal requirements; and KRITFC believes AVCP and TCC’s case is one avenue to pursue this shift.”

“The National Marine Fisheries Service cannot by law keep covering its eyes and ears while rubber stamping increased harvests for an industry already known for huge bycatch waste,” said Joanna Cahoon, a staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which filed the brief on behalf of five Alaska Native and conservation organizations. “The agency has evaded comprehensive environmental review for trawl industry operations in the Bering Sea region for decades. It needs to do a deep analysis of how the industry’s massive taking of salmon, crab, and other marine life impacts communities and ecosystems in a region now profoundly threatened by climate change. This amici brief asks the court to ensure the agency sees the science, hears local people, and complies with the law without further delay.”

Between 1991 and 2022, trawlers bycaught and largely dumped overboard dead 1 million chinook salmon and 6 million chum salmon. (Between 2003 and 2007 alone, they caught 400,000 chinook.) Other species, like snow crab, Bristol Bay red king crab, herring and halibut, have suffered catastrophic declines. Commercial, sport, traditional and charter fisheries have been shuttered or severely reduced for the first time ever. Western Alaska salmon stocks have crashed. “Midwater” trawlers permitted to trawl in sensitive areas have been shown to actually drag the bottom  with their heavy nets between 40-90% of the time. And the current management system, and National Environmental Policy Act analyses, have failed to analyze or address these ecosystem impacts. Instead, in the 2023-2024 season, NMFS is allowing 17% more pollock harvest — which means more bycatch — than the previous year. That amount is 40% more than the 2010 quota.

Read the full amicus curiae brief and accompanying motion for leave.

SalmonState works to keep Alaska a place where wild salmon and the people whose lives are interconnected with them continue to thrive. 

Trustees for Alaska is an Alaska nonprofit environmental law firm that works to protect Alaska’s lands, waters, and communities for generations to come. 

Native Peoples Action initiates and participates in grassroots community and direct advocacy organizing, and social media awareness campaigns on issues that affect Alaska Native populations and communities.

The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission relies on Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Dené Knowledge and the best available Western science as it represents 33 federally-recognized Tribes of the Kuskokwim drainage in fisheries management, research, and monitoring.

Ocean Conservancy envisions a healthy ocean protected by a more just world. We work to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together, we create evidence-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it.