Deadly success?


Cook Inlet red salmon

Twenty-eight years ago, the state of Alaska banned fish farming in favor of salmon ranching. The idea was simple: Catch a bunch of fish, squeeze out their eggs and sperm, mix the two together, hatch the eggs, raise the little fish in a hatchery, dump them in the ocean, wait for them to come back, and net the money.

What could possibly go wrong? Maybe this:

From 1985 to 1994, before the hatchery program seriously geared up in the Prince William Sound,  the commercial catch of sockeye (red) salmon in Cook Inlet averaged about 5.3 million fish per year.

As hatchery production in the Sound went up, as all the little pink salmon released there early every year rode the Alaska Coastal Current north into the big mixing zone of the mouth of Inlet where many fish converge, the catch in the Inlet went down.

For the past 10 years, it has averaged under 2.9 million reds, according to state fisheries data.

Coincidence is not causation, said Greg Ruggerone, a Washington state-based scientist who has been studying salmon interactions in Alaska waters for decades. But, he added, more questions need to be asked about how the nearly 1.5 billion pink and chum salmon Alaska hatcheries now dump in the ocean every year affect wild fish.

Ruggerone and others have studied declines in copepods, a tiny crustacean important to immature salmon and a wide variety of other small fish.  Scientists recognize that copepod “richness is correlated with salmon survival. This suggests that the copepod community, when these salmon first enter the ocean” is vitally important to salmon…, says the Northwest Fisheries Science Center of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

Scientists from Japan and the University of Washington looked specifically at pink and sockeye salmon in the Gulf of Alaska in 2000 and concluded “the high degree of food niche overlap between sockeye and pink salmon indicates that their food niche may be the same.”

The sockeye did eat “more large (prey) squid, than pink salmon. But the breadth of the food niche of pink salmon was wider than that of sockeye salmon in both years, although not significantly so,” the study said.

The first observation would tend to indicate sockeye might do fine when more squid are available. The latter observation would indicate that when competition for food gets tough, the pink salmon have an edge.

Nothing is definitive in any of this, Ruggerone said, but the research does raise questions.


Against this backdrop, the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association this week asked the Alaska Board of Fisheries to revive its long abandoned plan for hatchery review.

“In actions taken in January 2001 and June 2002 the Alaska Board of Fisheries stated its intent to institutionalize a public forum to bring a statewide perspective to issues associated with hatchery production of salmon,” said the proposal submitted to the Board.

As a result of the 2002 action, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the Board agreed on a protocol “to coordinate department and board interaction on certain
aspects of salmon hatchery policy and regulation,” according to the record of the meeting.

“It was the intention of the commissioner of the ADF&G and the chairman of the BOF (Board of Fish) that meetings be held on a regular basis wherein the ADF&G would update the Board and the public on management, production and research relating to Alaska’s commercial salmon enhancement program,” the sport fishing said in its proposal.

The plan, however, faded away as Inlet sockeye stocks that faltered in the late 1990s began to rebound in the early 2000s. Inlet sockeye are the most popular in the state. They attract tens of thousands of anglers and personal-use dipnetters to the Kenai River every summer. Approximately 1,100 commercial permit holders catch most of the Inlet’s sockeye. The commercial and non-commercial fishermen regularly engage in big political battles over who gets to catch what and how much.

With the number of salmon returning to the state’s most closely watched fishery in the early 2000s, nobody paid much attention to the growing hatchery program in Prince William Sound even if it dumped ever-increasing numbers of hungry little mouths into the Alaska Coastal Current.

Ken Tarbox, then a Kenai area commercial fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and colleague Terry Bendock did express concerns about food competition between the fish flooding north on the current and young salmon leaving the Inlet to feed in the same area, but they were scoffed at.

In a paper titled “Are Prince William Sound Hatcheries a Fool’s Bargain,” Bill Smoker, a respected fisheries biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbank’s research station in Juneau bluntly refuted the Tarbox-Bendock assertion that “hatcheries (are) a major contributor to wild stock loss.”

“A careful consideration of historical data supports neither the notion that wild stocks have been lost nor the notion that hatcheries have contributed to the loss of wild salmon,” he wrote.

At the time, he looked to be spot on.

A commercial catch of Inlet sockeye that had dipped below an average of 2 million fish per year in the latter half of the 1990s, rebounded as the new millennium began. The commercial sockeye catch in the Inlet hit almost 3.5 million fish in 2003, close to 5 million the next year, and over 5 million in 2004. 

Everything looked good.blurb1

Fewer fish

Smoker’s conclusion doesn’t look quite as open and shut measured against the yard stick of history.

The average commercial catch of reds for the latest 10-year period is about 55 percent of that 5.3 million average for 1985 to 1995. It could be a coincidence. It could be due to environmental factors. It could be attributable to a lot of things, but the shrinkage does raise questions.

Sound hatcheries that were turning loose about 400 million young salmon per year by 1995 gradually increased their releases to close to 1 billion, and the Sound hatcheries became a huge, aquaculture success story.

Hatcheries boosted Sound production by  17.5 to 23.7 million pink salmon per year, according to NOAA scientist William Heard. Before the hatcheries went into operation, the average, annual pink salmon catch in the Sound averaged 3 million pinks per year from 1951 and 1979. Pinks are low-value species. Three million pinks would have been worth less than 1 million sockeye.

The hatchery program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years largely because of its straying fish.

Nancy Hillstrand of Homer, the widow of a commercial fishermen, started to worry about hatchery salmon when fish that were supposed to be going back to the Sound started showing up in force in Kenai Peninsula tributaries to the Inlet.

When state fisheries biologists were summoned to the southern Kenai in 2017 to sample pinks to figure out why there were so many in places where few were usually seen, they found Sound hatchery salmon all over the place. Almost 70 percent of the 96 salmon sampled in Fritz Creek, an Inlet tributary near Homer, were Sound fish. And so, too, more than 56 percent of the pinks sampled in Beluga Slough, a salt marsh along Kachemak Bay. 

Something needs to be done, Hillstrand said Wednesday, charging that “the regional planning teams are totally corrupt. Any oversight is now completely in the hands of the aquaculture associations.”

Tommy Sheridan, the chair of the Prince William Sound RPT, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sheridan holds the salmon-processors seat on the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC), which runs the private, non-profit hatcheries in the Sound. PWSAC produces more than 600 million of the fry that get dumped into the Sound ever year.

A hatchery Sound

The Sound RPT has a checkered history.

When the “Prince William Sound–Copper River Phase 3 Comprehensive Salmon Plan” – a project overseen by state fisheries biologist – was written in 1994, it set some strict standards for hatchery management in the Sound.

Standards one and two on the RPT’s five “biological and economic criteria to be employed to recognize optimum production as the hatchery program in Prince William Sound is developed” were:

  • 1) “wild stock escapement goals must be achieved over the long term;
  • 2) “the proportion of hatchery salmon straying into wild-stock streams must remain
    below 2 percent of the wild-stock escapement over the long term.”

Number two was long ago exceeded. A 2012 study led by Richard Brenner of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Division found that hatchery salmon had scattered all over the Sound.

“Most spawning locations sampled (77 percent) had hatchery pink salmon from three or more hatcheries,”  he wrote, and 51 percent  had annual escapements consisting of more than 10 percent hatchery pink salmon during at least one of the years surveyed.”

That’s more than five times above the standard set when the program began, and it wasn’t in just a few streams.

After the data was statistically analyzed, Brenner wrote, scientists concluded that it “indicated that streams throughout PWS contain more than 10 percent hatchery pink salmon….The level of hatchery salmon strays in many areas of PWS are beyond all proposed thresholds (2 to 10 percent), which confounds wild salmon escapement goals and may harm the productivity, genetic diversity and fitness of wild salmon in this region.”

Brenner’s last conclusion is much debated. There seems some general agreement that the hatchery has turned much of the Sound into something of a mega-salmon factory fueled by hatcheries, but whether that is harmful is unclear.

Genetic studies of salmon have shown that wild fish can rapidly evolve to survive efficiently in hatcheries; it is only logical that hatchery spawned fish released into the wild would do the opposite and over the course of a few generations evolve back into wild fish.

And there has been considerable attention paid to what the hatchery program is doing to salmon in the Sound, but there is a possibility what it is doing to salmon outside the Sound is more significant.

PWSAC is continuing to push for production increases in the hatcheries. It has in the past shown some reluctance to follow state guidance.

In 2006, the state accused the nonprofit of:

  • Exceeding permit stocking levels
  • Withholding data required in permits
  • Failing to deal with the state in good faith
  • Refusing to participate in evaluations of straying salmon
  • Roe-stripping “excessive broodstock selection”
  • Maintaining inadequate records on roe sales
  • And more.

Roe is the most valuable part of the pink salmon. It is sold as a delicacy in Japan. The state also said then that “large-scale hatchery salmon straying must be addressed by PWSAC.”

There is no sign anything ever happened, except for the Board of Fish’s hatchery oversight committee going away. A follow-up review by the state in 2009 said that “the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recognizes the importance of Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation within the region and strongly supports the
effective and continued operation of PWSAC hatcheries. However, PWSAC had established an extensive record of on-going problems. Despite ample opportunity and encouragement to address these issues, PWSAC had neither corrected nor explained most of these on-going problems.”

It is unclear from the public record if the state ever got the situation fixed. Hillstrand is skeptical. She said it appears the aquaculture groups oversee state officials instead of the other way around.







26 replies »

  1. Here is the resulting article on a symposium held last night in Juneau relative to Southeast’s issues with king salmon.

    Money shot is this IMO: “While ADFG knows where salmon are suffering, they don’t know when or why. They are somewhat confident that it’s a problem with early marine mortality, that young king salmon aren’t making it past their first years in the ocean, a problem which could be related to the availability of food.”

  2. Even longtime industrial sized hatchery proponent Steve Reifenstuhl agrees with Craig! Steve stated in an interview in Fish Factor over this issue:

    “certainly increased competition can decrease salmon body size, as we’ve often seen in big runs..”
    This statement effectively admits that hatcheries spewing out extra mouths know they are stealing poundage and money away from wild fisherman. It is another form of interception.
    Lets call a spade a spade!

    • Nothing in that statement suggests hatcheries are stealing money away from wild fisherman. Reifenstuhl is referring to “big runs” and his body size is for that particular run.
      You might make that connection (altering wild runs) but Steve is not IMO.

  3. As a commercial fisherman and as someone who has lived in Alaska most of my life I read this article and responses, the informed and uninformed with interest. I don’t know anything about Craig Medred. I never even heard of him until a fellow commercial fisherman worried about wild fish sent me this article. And I don’t know that I would bother to read most of what Craig writes about. But as someone who depends on salmon, loves salmon and believes that I am privileged to be able to live in Alaska and spend part of my life trying to catch them, I think he brings forward issues all user groups have to engage with.

    When I read this there are times I wish I had been born in another era. In an area when there was greater abundance of wild fish, less people trying to catch them and less rules and restrictions. But we are born when we are born. I live and fish in a time of unprecedented change. The climate is changing, the North Pacific is less productive, there are more people and more pollution. The Pacific Cod stocks are in decline, Halibut is is entering a period stock rebuilding, there are less king salmon and they are smaller, there was virtually no herring spawn in Sitka Sound. These are all scary events and makes these scary times for all fishermen. So part of me wishes this article wasn’t even relevant. But it is.

    Hatcheries were developed in period of low salmon abundance to assist in the enhancement and rebuilding of our wild fish. Limited entry in to commercial fisheries came about during this same time All fish depend on a healthy marine ecosystem. If our hatchery fish are potentially disrupting this to some degree those conversations have to take place. Just as important, if we don’t know if they are or not we need to have those uncomfortable conversations. I like to believe most fishermen want to leave fishery resources in better condition for the next generation. I know I do. And sometimes that requires painful and unpopular conversations and management adjustments. That is part of fishing. This coming from someone who’s boat is tied up at the dock right now for that very reason

    More important than Craig’s opinions are the the research by biologists like Ruggerone and others asking questions about health and viability of wild salmon. There are more salmon swimming in the North Pacific than ever before. Most of them are pinks, who grow the most during last 6 months of their life cycle. In a period of lower ocean productivity that means more in the predators competing for less food. As a commercial troller, focused on delivering the highest quality fresh fish I can I am not a big fan of the idea of a hatchery pink taking food from a wild king salmon, much less over 600 million of them.

    Our hatchery programs have to operate in legally and ecologically responsible regulatory framework of maintaining a healthy and productive marine ecosystem that includes first and foremost the needs of wild fish. That isn’t just salmon either, halibut and other wild fish species rely on same forage fish resources. Issues of straying or trophic cascade events are all things we need to be cognizant of. In recent issue of Pacific fishing magazine B.C. fishermen too were pushing for ocean ranching. That could potentially lead to hundreds of millions if not billions more hatchery fish in the ocean too.

    I love the Alaskan commercial fishing way of life, to me it is sacred. At I know how important it is to the economy and socio-cultural well being of our coastal communities, not to mention to my own soul.

    If, as data suggests, unregulated, or “loosely regulated” pink salmon production around the north Pacific are impacting the health and viability of wild fish stocks and ocean survival and health of other salmon species then we need to make changes, and different user groups all need to work together in order that we are leaving our wild fish stocks healthier for future generations of subsistence, commercial and sport fishers.

    • Josh, while you indeed need to be concerned you must also feel that you particularly are dependent on hatchery king salmon that are a large part of your Alaska outside king salmon fishery.
      And further, a recent conversation I had with another power troller (based in Oregon), who was upset with the closures you guys are facing, mentioned that you would each be shaking hundreds of king salmon during your upcoming coho fishery. I expressed some dismay from this conversation, as I had always thought that those shakings were not that prevalent, but someone eventually got to this troller (DJeffery Eells) as he deleted all his posts to a Juneau Empire post. Anyway, your fleet is an enormous interception fishery that appears to immensely harm its own money fish and you are on here worried about something that may/may not be a problem.
      Clean up your own mess first is my advice.

      • While I appreciate your passion, and your “advise” My point was nothing should be off the table for discussing how to protect long term viability of our salmon resources.Yes the troll fleet does both invest in and benefit from hatchery produced king salmon. However those fish are produced in a much smaller abundance than other salmon species such as pinks or chums. Concurrently hatchery king salmon are having the same ocean survival issues facing wild king salmon. I would not go so far as to say one conversation and opinion with one Oregon based troller is data upon which to develop a rational argument.

        Secondly, (and I am sure you will disagree and think I am naive, and that is fine) but trollers are seeing less king salmon period. The best of the best were struggling to find them. This isn’t about shaking small fish or catching them out of season. It is about there being less fish in the ocean. When targeting coho trollers are typically in a different section of the water column then where people fish for kings. Coho spoons are colors that specifically target coho and trollers build their spreads to target coho when fishing for them, fish in different areas, and use different strategies. Trollers are not trawlers. Yes there can be some degree of by-catch, but I disagree with your characterization. To that I would add trollers love king salmon and want there to be more of them and for the habitat that produces them to be protected. No body likes shaking fish. However this fleet is known for its careful treatment of fish based on delivering highest quality salmon possible. Most (if not every troller knows) careful release of king salmon is critical for long term viability of the fishery. There are always going to be individuals whose fishing practices are of a lesser quality, that is true in any fishery, or profession for that matter

        Trollers proposed adjustments in the trolling season to protect wild king salmon runs identified by ADF&G as struggling. Trollers did this despite coded wire tag data demonstrating outside trollers do not intercept a statistically significant number of fish returning to these systems.

        To that I would also add that in even posting on this forum my point was only that wild fish are struggling period. There is a limited amount of food. We are producing more salmon to compete for that food. The ocean is an ecosystem, and there are limits on what an ecosystem can sustain, especially if it is in a period of unprecedented change.

        There needs to be an open conversation, and a willingness to evaluate our behaviors (which includes evaluating the impacts of hatchery production) if we want to make sure wild salmon fisheries, including those that benefit from enhancement are sustainable. A model of perpetual growth in period of declining ocean productivity isn’t.

      • So …….Josh, are you saying that the Oregon troller was bullchitting? You have a feeling for your own shaking of kings while fishing outside in coho fishery, right. What is it? Are you guys each shaking hundreds of kings or not?? Why would this guy make something like that up??
        Anyhow, the problem for shaking king salmon is that many undersized kings do not survive due to drowning on the gear (while larger kings survive this). There is some information about the numbers of kings shaken during coho season but it is dated, when observers were on board. I mention this due to your mentioning that trollers carefully release them.
        I believe that you might be on to something about ocean food but its by no means a given. Good luck to your fleet.

  4. Lets stop the red herring there Todd, this is about the uncertainty that lurks incessantly in our fisheries under the guise of hatchery ranching. Billions of extra mouths to feed and a captured bureaucracy…our fish and Game

    • It is not Red Herring to point out that Craig uses data incorrectly. The issue and concern about hatchery competition is valid. Craig’s argument about Sockeye abundance is not. 2015-2017 were record years for Sockeye abundance in AK, eclipsed only by the massive return of 1995. PWS/Copper River had their 2nd and 3rd best years ever in 2011 & 2012. Cook Inlet has not set any Sockeye records lately, (due in no small part to lack of production from the Northern District), but has had decent – and on average quite solid – returns. Perhaps that’s why Craig used Cook Inlet Commercial harvest to represent historic Sockeye abundance – knowing full well that commercial allocation in that fishery has diminished substantially over time. It made for a convenient argument to the layperson but it’s complete horse shit to anyone who knows the first thing about Salmon or Statistics. This speaks volumes to Craig’s overall shtick – that our runs are terrible and not what they used to be. It’s not true and an honest look at the data shows that Sockeye fishing was great in 1987 AND 2017.

  5. Why use commercial harvest to represent Cook Inlet Sockeye abundance over time? Opportunity has totally changed. If you actually cared, you would have spent 15 minutes requesting data for total returns to Cook Inlet, which would show that Sockeye abundance is less sporadic than the 80’s, but nearly as abundant if you average it over the decades. Sockeye abundance statewide is still great compared to historical averages. Way to take a credible theory and jamb it into your warped reality. Craig I value Sockeye infinitely more than pinks and am concerned about this issue but you do it no justice here.

  6. Well, PWS was always about 1 to 3 million pinks before PWSAC. Matching the 2018, wild fish prediction. Mother Nature made it that way for a reason back when pinks were wild, instead of farmed, whoops, I mean ranched. Wild Fish, have wild sex, their not jacked off in a plastic bucket, either ranching or farming style!

  7. Last spring it was copper river kings this year it’s hatcheries. You seem to have quite the fixation with Area E salmon fishermen and their livelihoods. Makes for a dramatic read I suppose.

  8. For decades sport fisherman and dipnetters have been foaming at the mouth and blaming commercial setnet fisherman for every ailment regarding fish returns to the Kenai and Mat Su. So geez, you mean the Penny crowd could have been dead wrong all this time? And it could have been the hatchery/purse seiners all along? The sport fishing/dipnetting/Penny crowd was never interested in the truth to begin with. Just a bunch of rich redneck idiots with biased fake logic that want to trash the meager livings of poor-ass setnetters.

  9. Read the papers done by the Russians who arethe only ones that have done extensive surveys of food sources of salmon in the Bering sea and North Pacific.
    Bottom line regardless of the number of juveniles put out by hatcheries so far absolutely no sign of lack of food.

    • What then do you attribute the many schools of reds and kings returning in such smaller sizes? We have experienced large numbers of both Copper reds and Main Bay hatchery reds returning in the 4 1/2 lb to 5 lb range that I hadn’t seen in 25 years of fishing PWS.
      Unlikely that small fish are getting through these nets to spawn their genes IMO, as this hadn’t occurred before.
      Just seems (to me) like feed could enter into it. Poor feed can result in small size IMO.
      You have any ideas?

    • Eric: it’s not that simple. it’s not a matter of total food availability. it’s a matter of food available to young fish. it’s sort of like this: the supermarket shelves can be stocked to the ceiling with food, but if the road doesn’t go to the supermarket, the store might as well be empty as far as you’re concerned.
      or, to get more specific, it doesn’t matter what’s in the Bering Sea if fish are starving to death (or even losing growth that makes them more vulnerable to predation) in that big, Alaska Coastal Current mixer off the mouth of Cook Inlet.
      there is a reason the Barren Islands support the largest seabird colonies in the northern Gulf.
      none of which is to say food competition there has hurt Cook Inlet sockeye returns. but there is enough information to suggest that’s possible and worthy of investigation because even if it isn’t happening now, there will come some point where it will happen.
      pasture can only support so many cattle before it becomes over grazed. that part is simple.

    • Eric,
      So now we are supposed to believe Russian scientists as “authority” on a key domestic issue in U.S. waters?
      Maybe you should go watch the film “Icarus” and see how Russian scientists are forced to lie for the Kremlin.
      With 5 billion hatchery fish a year, it is decreased habitat along with food competition, along with weaker hatchery genes that is resulting in much smaller fish returning.
      Toss in the plastic pellets (garbage blob in Pacific) and other sources of pollution or climate change and you can see the smolts are up against a lot with their survival rates which is under 1 percent currently.
      We (Alaskans) need a 3 percent survival rate or more for any stability in “natural” runs.
      Not looking good for mother nature.

  10. It is estimated with all the hatcheries surrounding the Pacific Ocean (Japan, Canada, Russia & U.S.)…
    There are 5 billion Salmon added to the Pacific every year.
    Are these salmon released from Japan, Russia and Canada making it into Alaskan waters or interfering with our remaining natural runs?
    Quite possible since Oregon hatchery fish are netted in SE Alaska fisheries.

  11. “Follow the money”, who is it that funds political campaigns for the office of Governor of Alaska? Not surprisingly the commercial fisheries industry is a major contributor. Ultimately who is it that tells state officials what to do? It’s the state administration led by the Governor.
    If you’re interested in conservation of public resources, fish, be sure to find out who the commercial fisheries industry is backing before you vote for a Governor of Alaska this next November.

    • Spot on Rod. And who might that candidate be? Walker for sure. But perhaps Scott Hawkins as well. A community meeting / fund raising event for him is taking place on April 9 hosted by UCIDA and Lisa McDonald. It will take place at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Assocc location in Kenai. Wonder what that is all about. Could it be that the commercial / aquaculture sectors are hedging their bets?

      • Alaskans need to force canidates to state their position and plan for our fisheries (like a 4 day on 3 day off schedule for commie nets).

        Candiates who make blanket comments like “I am all for supporting sport fishing in Alaska…”
        Should not be trusted.

        Walker needs to go.
        (For many reasons)
        Anyone but Walker in November.

      • Alaskans First – I’d say they definitely are. Bob Penney is a major contributor to Dunleavy’s campaign because Dunleavy is all in on Penney’s commercial fishing Jihad. While that might net him the single issue sporfishing industry voters, and he will do anything to buy votes with the PFD, he has major weaknesses on fiscal issues and is completely beatable by someone with a grasp on reality. Would be nice to see a Republican challenger who supports all user groups beat him in the primary. Hopefully that will happen and all fish user groups can rest easy that no one will get their heads chopped off and our Permanent Fund turned into nothing more than a welfare handout and mechanism to buy votes.

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