On a three-three vote, the Alaska Board of Fisheries has allowed to move forward a plan to dump another 18 million or so pink salmon fry into the Port of Valdez every year to add to the approximately 700 million pink fry being poured into Prince William Sound every year.
The big winner? Peter Pan Seafoods, a subsidiary of the Maruha Nichiro Corporation in Japan and several hundred commercial fishermen. Maruha Nichiro is the world’s largest seafood company with annual sales of $8 to $9 billion and profits of around $150 million.
Peter Pan, its subsidiary, operates a Valdez processing plant that handles a bounty of pinks produced by the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, a private, nonprofit company that has grown from a small hatchery that released 7.4 million pink salmon fry in 1981 to one that now releases about 230 million fry and growing.
Six of the seven members of that organization’s board of directors are involved in the commercial fishing business. Three of them, including chairman of the board Bernie Culbertson, hold valuable, Alaska salmon seine permits for Prince William Sound.
Sound seine permits, which the state of Alaska issued free to commercial fishermen as their personal property to keep or to sell after the approval of the state’s Limited Entry Act in 1973, are now selling for anywhere from $155,000 to $175,000.
A fishing package – the permit plus a boat and the gear to go fishing – costs somewhere from $450,000 to $675,000.
These small, individual businesses are highly valuable because a prolific, state-backed salmon ranching scheme introduced to the Sound in 1975 has made them so. When the Armin F. Koenig hatchery was built in 1974, a token 3 million salmon fry were being released into Alaska waters to eat their way to sea and return, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.
By the time that hatchery run by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association, another operation dominated by commercial fishermen, released its first million fish in 1975, state hatchery production had increased to 11 million fry.
The stocking was destined to explode. By the time the Alaska legislature voted to ban fish farming in 1990, the annual fry dump into the ocean topped 1 billion small fish per year.
Backers of private, nonprofit hatcheries and their lobbyists have sold their hatcheries as big contributors to “common property” salmon stocks that benefit all Alaskans, but state data indicates that is largely a lie.
Ninety-nine percent of the hatchery salmon produced in Alaska benefit commercial fishermen or hatcheries, according to the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2017 from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One percent gets split between rural subsistence fishermen, Alaskans who dipnet salmon for personal use, and the several hundred thousands anglers – resident and non-resident – who pump cash into the state’s tourist economy.
Wild salmon – not hatchery salmon – are the fish that benefit most Alaskans, but the state provided limited attention to protecting wild fish from possible hatchery competition and displacement even as scientists at the start of the decade began to warn that ocean pastures are being overgrazed by hatchery salmon and some state fisheries biologists expressed concern that pink salmon getting lost on their way back to the hatcheries were straying into almost ever stream in the Sound with the risk of potentially turning the area into little more than one giant, defacto hatchery.
Those concerns would slow the meteoric growth in the ocean-ranching program, but the state reported almost 1.6 billion salmon fry – most of them voracious pinks and chums – poured out of hatcheries in the Sound, Southeast Alaska and Kodiak last year.
More, more, more
State fisheries managers are now being questioned by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and others for allowing hatchery programs to continuously expand, but the same biologists probably deserve a commendation for holding things in check as well as they did.
Statewide fry dumps that topped 1.5 billion for the first time in 2007 have remained within 250,000 fry of that mark ever since, despite pressure from salmon processors and hatchery operators to significantly expand the hatchery program.
The Pacific Seafood Processors Association, an industry trade group, and three of the biggest processors running operations in Alaska – Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods – approached the private, non-profit hatcheries in 2010 to ask for a greater than 60 percent increase in hatchery output.
“From 2000-2009 the average statewide hatchery pinks returns were 32.6 million in even years and 55.9 million in odd years – in both cases about 40 percent of total pink returns,” the processors said in an “Open Letter to Alaska Hatcheries.”
“We would like production to increase to 70 million in both even and odds years over the next five years, which would bring hatchery production to roughly 50 percent of that total.”
State reports reflect that the processors got part of what they wanted – odd year hatchery returns of pinks increased to about 60 million and even year returns to 41 million – but it was by luck, not design.
Fry stocking did not increase significantly. Adult returns from similar fry releases appear to have risen due to slightly better ocean survival, a factor over which hatcheries have no control.
Hatcheries helped drive Alaska salmon harvests into the present era of bounty fueled in large part by a warmer North Pacific ocean making for more productive habitat. Just over half of the 169 million salmon caught in Alaska commercial fisheries in 2010 were hatchery fish, but wild fish are what have largely supported the good times of this decade.
From 1970 through 2009, the Alaska commercial catch topped 200 million fish only four times. Since 2010, the catch has three time passed 200 million with a state record harvest of 280 million coming in 2013.
The hatchery percentage of the catch for the seven years from 2011 through last year? Thirty-one percent – far below the 50 percent goal of processors. And the percentage was down to 21 percent last year on a catch of 222 million.
Meanwhile, there were obvious problems with the pink salmon returning to the Sound, the salmon-ranching capital of Alaska.
Dazed and confused
Hump-backed hatchery pink salmon – or “humpies” as Alaska’s commonly call the smallest and most bountiful of the Pacific salmon – that were supposed to be returning to Sound hatcheries in 2017 showed up in a lot of other places, most notably in Cook Inlet.
“All around Kachemak Bay the past weeks, people have reported large runs of pink salmon in places never seen before,” Michael Armstrong wrote in the Homer New in August 2017.
“Glenn Hollowell, finfish area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Homer, said he started hearing reports of pinks in Beluga Slough last week. When he went to check, he said he saw so many ‘that I came back with a knife and tray and started plucking otoliths,’ or ear bones.”
Those otoliths would turn out to be telling. Collected from 16 target streams where salmon research was ongoing and “a few streams that normally have very few, if
any, fish – e.g., Beluga Slough, Fritz Creek, Lou’s Creek, Sadie Cove – but were reported by
members of the public to have ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’ of fish in them in 2017,” the thermally marked ear bones showed hatchery fish had infiltrated most of the streams in Lower Cook Inlet (LCI), according to an Alaska Fish and Game memo.
“Hatchery-marked pink salmon – PWS and LCI combined – outnumbered unmarked
pink salmon on five of the 16 streams sampled, including three small streams sampled in response to public reports of unusually high escapements, i.e., Beluga Slough, Fritz Creek, Lou’s Creek,” the report said.
The entrance to Cook Inlet is approximately 150 to 200 miles west of the westernmost entrance to Prince William Sound. How many hatchery salmon from the Sound turned into the Inlet instead of heading home is unknown. State fisheries biologists have offered no estimate.
And while hatchery pinks from the Sound were showing up in the Inlet in unusual numbers, they weren’t showing up in the Sound as expected. The hatchery return there was a bit of a bust. PSWAC forecast a return of 27.4 milion pinks to its four hatcheries, but only 13.3 million – 48 percent less – came back.
The Valdez hatchery did better. It came up only 4.6 million humpies shy of a predicted return of 18.75 million, according to Fish and Game’s season summary.
Wild pinks, meanwhile – or at least pinks heading for streams instead of hatcheries, the spawning streams of the Sound now being a jumble of wild and hatchery fish – returned in unexpected numbers.
The ”wild” catch of humpies was about 600,000 in excess of the state forecast, and Fish and Game reported the number of pinks spawning in Sound streams appeared to be at or above spawning goals.
What happened? Nobody knows.
Ocean survival is the huge wild-card in salmon management.
On the heavily studied Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have determined that as little as one-tenth of 1 percent to 2 percent of the salmon that enter the Columbia River estuary on their way to sea survive to return.
That is a twentyfold difference.
“If just 1 to 2 percent more juvenile salmon survived through adulthood in the ocean, the number of adult salmon that came back to the Columbia River to spawn would more than double,” notes the Bonneville Power Administration.
PSWAC survival usually runs 5 percent. PSWAC hatcheries hit the jackpot in 2010 when 12 percent of hatchery pinks survived, according to the McDowell Group, a consultancy.
In a 2011 report prepared for the aquaculture association, McDowell argued “that Alaskans have received tremendous ‘bang for the buck’ as a result of supporting
PWSAC operations” to the tune of about $49 million in state grants and loans.
“For every $1.00 of net grant funding the State of Alaska has invested in PWSAC
facilities since 1975, the hatcheries have returned $271 to the seafood industry (in first wholesale value),” said the report, which argued for pumping ever more pink salmon into the North Pacific Ocean in hopes of further increasing profits.
Adding another 441 million eggs to the hatcheries in the late 2000s, the report argued, would produce another 26 million humpies and “fishermen would have earned an additional $30.1 million during the 2009 to 2011 fishing seasons. That is equal to $42,300 per active permit holder for the three-year period, or $14,100 per year.”
Hatcheries are often viewed as a panacea by commercial and sport fishermen, the general public and some consultancies, but biologists have been prone to colder, harder, more objective examinations.
While agreeing that the Sound hatcheries appear to be a huge success, Ricardo Amoroso from the University of Washington and colleagues observed that the picture is confused because of “a major change in productivity in the North Pacific so that throughout Alaska pink salmon increased dramatically in abundance between the 1970s and the 2000s.”
“We estimate that the PWS hatchery program has increased the total catch by an average of 17 million fish, of which 8 million have been allocated to pay hatchery operating expenses,” they wrote. “We estimate that the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of wild spawning fish in PWS has increased slightly (28 percent), while in regions of Alaska without pink salmon hatchery programs the MSY has tripled. Our results support the use of a precautionary approach to future large-scale stock enhancement efforts.”
The study was flawed only in that it ignored the efficiency of “cost recovery,” which is the main way in which the private, non-profit hatcheries now fund their operations. Fish are cheap to catch when they school near a hatchery, and pink salmon – small salmon which lack the high fat content of sockeyes and Chinooks – are a low-value fish on which profit is tied to volume.
Increasingly pinks are ground, formed into patties, and sold as “salmon burgers,” but a large volume is still canned. Canned salmon is a cheap product – about $3 per can- that competes with tuna, a product that has been falling out of favor with U.S. consumers for years.
Pink salmon processors need a lot of pinks cheap to survive as businesses. Commercial seiners need a lot of pinks they can sell at low price to generate the income to cover operating costs and earn a profit. Hatcheries need a lot of salmon – and roe, the most valuable part of pink salmon – to cover operating costs and staff salaries that exist even if they operate as non-profits.
For all of these interests, pumping out ever more pink salmon makes economic sense. In a simple business world driven purely by personal self-interest, they would continue to ratchet hatchery production up to the point where falling marine survival – a sign the pasture is being overgrazed – dropped to a point where the cost-to-benefit ratio of hatching ever more eggs and releasing ever more fry began to fall.
Only it isn’t that simple because the hatchery owners and their associates don’t own the pasture. The pasture is a huge commons in which everyone dependent on or interested in salmon has a stake, and it is out in the commons that things get interesting.
An advocate for wild fish, Ben Van Alen, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Southeast Alaska, is at the opposite extreme of hatchery backers. He argues that mainly what salmon ranching does is steal nutrients from the ocean in the process of disrupting natural ecosystems.
Naturally, he argues, “a sizeable proportion of wild salmon runs spawn and die in thousands of watersheds which helps maintain the natural marine-terrestrial-marine
nutrient cycle. In contrast, nearly all salmon returning to hatcheries and remote release sites are caught (and should be) and their tons of marine-derived nutrients are removed from the nutrient cycle.
“Thus, not only are wild fish and shellfish facing direct competition from 5 billion-plus hatchery salmon now released into the North Pacific each year, but the ocean’s productivity is declining from the nutrient mining inherent with these industrial-scale ocean ranching hatchery programs.”
Van Alen also makes a point with which no one argues:
There is a limit, albeit unknown and variable, as to how many salmon the ocean pastures can support, and “you can fill (that) carrying capacity with wild fish and/or hatchery fish.”
Against that backdrop, there is a growing debate about hatchery fish more than filling their fair share of that carrying capacity to the detriment of not only other salmon, but seabirds as well.
University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Alan Springer and colleagues in Australia say large volumes of hatchery fish are messing up the ecosystem of not only the North Pacific, but the entire Pacific. In a peer-reviewed study published Monday on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, they reported evidence that immature pink salmon were consuming so much food in the North Pacific that Australian shearwaters that summer in the area were dying from malnutrition after winging their nesting grounds back in the South Pacific.
The scientists described the issue as “another example in a growing list of ecosystem disservices of an abundant species of North Pacific salmon and the need to include ecosystem processes at such geographic scales in conservation and management considerations for this northern open ocean.”
Their paper came on the heels of another by fisheries scientists Greg Ruggerone from Seattle and Jim Irvine from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, suggesting the huge production of hatchery chums and pinks by Alaska, Japan and Russia is likely reducing North American populations of coho and Chinook salmon and contributing to the shrinking size of the most prized sport fish in the 49th state.
In a peer-reviewed paper published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries – Dynamics, Management and Ecosystem Science, they observed that “salmon abundance in large areas of Alaska (Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska), Russia (Sakhalin and Kuril islands), Japan, and South Korea are dominated by hatchery (pink and chum) salmon. During 1990–2015, hatchery salmon represented approximately 40 percent of the total biomass of adult and immature salmon in the ocean.”
Ruggerone said in an interview that it is pretty clear the Pacific has reached carrying capacity for salmon, and that in some cases fast-growing pinks appear to be displacing and then replacing sockeye, coho and Chinook that spend years at sea instead of a year at sea.
The idea is not exactly new.
“Competition for resources between hatchery and wild salmon stocks has become a significant concern,” the University of Alaska Anchorage Environment and Natural Resources Institute reported in a 2001 paper prepared for Trout Unlimited. “Based on a review of the literature and discussions with biologists, geneticists, and fishery
managers, it is widely believed that extensive ocean ranching may pose a threat to the ocean’s carrying capacity and the protection of salmon biodiversity.
“This may be the most important issue for assessing risks to wild salmon, especially for populations with comparatively small numbers of individuals, and it may be more significant than the risk of loss or change in genetic diversity due to hatchery practices.”
Nancy Hillstrand, a resident of the Homer area on the Kenai Peninsula and a critic of the cavalier way in which state hatchery programs are monitored, has referred to the process of displacement and replacement of highly valuable salmon with low-value humpies as “silent allocation.”
“Monitoring of hatchery practices is a duty and responsibility of each of the Regional Planning Teams established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” the UAA report concluded. “Judging from the type of reports they produce (e.g., annual hatchery management plans), their primary concern is development of hatchery production plans and evaluating the resulting contribution to fisheries.
“Some plans have information that addresses the protection of wild stocks; however, there is almost no information on how effective any of the proposed measures have been.
“This report concludes that industrial-scale hatchery salmon production, which releases billions of smolts into the North Pacific Ocean, could be jeopardizing Alaska’s wild salmon. Additionally, there are legitimate management questions as to whether
hatchery operations in Alaska are in line with current Alaska Department of Fish and Game policies, including the Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy.”
Nobody listened to the UAA scientist then. Seventeen years on, with hatcheries again wanting to expand, the Kenai sportfishing group is raising the same issues. The Board of Fisheries has this time suggested maybe it should listen at some point, but when is the question.