City of Bethel seeks to join tribal lawsuit to revise Groundfish management

The legal challenge aims to reexamine management of groundfish trawlers to better protect Yukon-Kuskokwim salmon runs.

The City of Bethel requested permission last week from Alaska’s U.S. District Court to join in a federal lawsuit seeking to revise groundfish management to better protect subsistence salmon fishing in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

The legal challenge, originally filed in April by the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) and Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), with representation from Earthjustice, is asking federal fisheries managers to take a fresh look at how they are managing industrial trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands where ecosystem-wide changes are occurring due to climate change.

Bethel’s move to join the lawsuit highlights the far-reaching impacts of fisheries management decisions in a rapidly changing climate. The City’s motion emphasizes that salmon declines affect the subsistence needs of the region’s residents as well as the City’s economy.

“We are grateful that the City of Bethel is seeking to join us in this vitally important fight. Our way of life is being impacted here in Bethel and across the region,” said AVCP Chief Executive Officer Vivian Korthuis. “This lawsuit demands action which protects our way of life-past, present, and future.”

“We appreciate the City of Bethel’s call to action recognizing that the current fish management system is relying on old data and completely ignores traditional and local knowledge. The system allows the economic and cultural burden of the decision-making process to fall directly on small coastal and river communities,” said TCC Chief Chairman Brian Ridley.

“Fisheries managers are continuing to make decisions including annual catch limits based on severely outdated environmental analyses that do not consider the loss of sea ice, shifts in species distribution and abundance, salmon declines, seabird die offs, and ecosystem-wide upheaval resulting from a rapidly changing climate,” said Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover. “Relying on such outdated studies is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Alaska is facing a historic salmon crisis while the groundfish trawling industry continues to fish in a destructive manner much as it has for decades despite sweeping ecosystem changes. Alaska Native people who depend on ocean resources to support their cultures and ways of life have had to cut back their catch of salmon and adapt to changes in other ocean resources while trawlers are allowed to keep catching—and wasting— salmon as bycatch.

AVCP and TCC collectively work on behalf of nearly 100 Tribes and communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. The two Tribal organizations welcome Bethel’s participation in the lawsuit.

The Bethel City Council adopted a unanimous resolution in May directing the City to join in the lawsuit because of the cultural, nutritional, and economic importance of salmon to Bethel residents – and because Bethel’s sales tax base depends on fishing-related sales income.

A City of Bethel legal memo states the federal government’s failure to “responsibly manage commercial trawling to limit salmon bycatch is ‘literally having an adverse downstream impact on the City’s tax base and residents.’”

This article was issued on Aug. 2, 2023.