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.
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.
- 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.