Summer has arrived in the north, and with it there is everywhere talk of fish.
In Alaska, some of the people fish all of the time, and most of the people fish at some time, and the few people who don’t fit either category are on a first-name basis with someone who does fish.
Since ancient times, it has been this way. Wars were fought over salmon before the U.S. purchase of the territory established a ruling colonial presence that quickly took control of salmon, leading to extreme hardships for the Alaska Native population.
Fish wars still rage from time to time, but they are now mainly verbal. Still, they are fueled with enough passion to inspire “Alaska Fish Wars,” a reality TV show from National Geographic Wild set in Cook Inlet, and spark assault with a dangerous weapon charges against the skipper of a Prince William Sound purse seiner who tried to take out a competitor.
Salmon fuel passions, and where there passions, there are beliefs. Often those beliefs revolve around human desires more than factual realities. Some beliefs have grown especially sticky this year with sport fishing and conservation groups, joined by a handful of commercial fishermen, challenging the long-held Alaska belief that hatcheries are a be-all to end-all.
It’s a myth, but it is not the only myth. Here are the five most common:
Number five: Fish stocks are depleted by too many people fishing.
Bad-mouthing shoulder-to-shoulder “combat fishing” – be it at Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage, the Russian River near Cooper Landing or at the mouth of the Kenai River – is something of a favorite 49th-state pastime in summer.
People willing to stand in line for half-an-hour to get into a hit movie or happy to spend hundreds of dollars to fly to Seattle to become a faceless minion in the render-you-deaf crowd at a Seahawks football game somehow find it offensive mobs of people gather to slay salmon.
Commercial fishermen in particular love to lament how all those people having fun are “destroying the resource.” But here’s the reality:
It doesn’t matter how many people fish; what matters is how many fish people kill. On a good day in Cook Inlet, a drift gillnetter can kill as many sockeye salmon – possibly more – than all the tourists lined up at the mouth of Russian River tossing heavily weighted flies into the waters of a fly-fishing-only meat fishery that can leave newly arrived fly-fishing purists in shock.
The 19,000 anglers who fished the Russian in 2016 caught 25,000 sockeye salmon for the season, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game numbers. In one day – July 27 – of last year, 764 commercial fishermen operating largely out of sight in Cook Inlet took nearly nine times as many fish.
Commercial fishermen fish efficiently with nets. Anglers? Not so much.
The fly-fishing-only fishery at the Russian isn’t about fly-fishing; it’s about limiting efficiency. It’s about restricting fish gear to make it harder to catch fish so mobs of people can fish without harming the resource.
Because, at the end of the run, what matters is how many fish people killed – not how many people fished.
Number four: Salmon hatcheries ensure more fish.
Some Alaska salmon stocking operations using hatchery fish have proven highly successful in providing roadside fishing opportunities in Alaska. Hatcheries helped boost the Ship Creek king salmon fishery in downtown Anchorage, and they feed the Homer Spit Lagoon king fishery in that community near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Hatcheries are also credited with the creating a Prince William Sound, commercial pink salmon fishery worth $36 million last year, according to ADF&G. That program, the state’s largest hatchery operation, is, however, now being questioned for both it efficacy, and the potential cost to other fisheries of the releases of huge numbers of pink salmon fry.
And while the ocean-ranching operations of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association (PWSAC) have been a huge success for the Sound’s commercial fishermen, hatchery operations don’t always work.
ADF&G and later the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association – a clone of the private, nonprofit PWSAC – have pumped hatchery sockeye into Hidden Lake on the Kenai Peninsula since the 1970s to boost sockeye returns to the Kenai River, which has sockeye wild runs in the millions of fish.
In 2017, 10,032 adult sockeye – both wild and hatchery fish – returned to the lake. The goal is 30,000. But at least 2017 was better than 2016 when only 1,248 fish returned, according to CIAA’s annual report.
The Kenai River put more than 1.3 million sockeye upstream from a sonar counter last year and 1.4 million in 2016. The numbers edged above the established goal for a ceiling of 1.3 million sockeye in-river.
The CIAA report said the reasons for the busts at Hidden Lake in “2016–2017 are not clear. Several possibilities have been raised such as fishing pressure at the mouth of Hidden Creek, beaver dams, thermal barriers, and possible correlations with other salmon runs that have under-performed over the same time frame. Although there is little that could be done regarding water temperatures and marine survival, ensuring that fishermen are not over-harvesting salmon near the mouth of Hidden Creek in 2018 is one factor that can be addressed to improve future escapement numbers.”
How many fish were caught at Hidden Creek is unclear. The CIAA report did say the “estimated commercial fishery harvest of Hidden Lake sockeye salmon (enhanced and natural) was 13,480. Personal use and sport fishery combined was estimated at 5,824.”
Any fish caught by anglers near the mouth of Hidden Creek would be a sliver of the personal-use/sport harvest of about a third of the catch of Hidden Lake sockeye.
CIAA has met its Hidden Lake goal of 30,000 sockeye only twice in the past decade. It did better the decade before with 30,000 or more returning six times in the 2009 to 1998 time frame.
Before the new millennium dawned, there were even concerns raised that so many hatchery-spawned fish would return to Hidden Lake that their spawned-out, rotting carcasses might overwhelm the system and pollute the lake. Those concerns now seem like ancient history.
Hidden Lake aquaculture seems to be following the path of the commercial, ocean-ranching operations British Petroleum, Union Carbide and the Weyerhaeuser Co. started in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. The companies lost tens of millions of dollars on ocean-ranching before giving up on the idea.
Number 3: “Over escapement” threatens salmon stocks.
This is a complaint most often heard from commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet who have been in a long-running battle with anglers and personal-use dipnetters over who gets to catch what salmon.
The complaint is seldom, if ever, heard elsewhere in Alaska.
Collectively, the rivers of Bristol Bay were about 5 million over their maximum escapement goals for sockeye salmon last summer, according to ADF&G. Escapement is the management measure of the number of salmon escaping fishermen and other predators to reach the spawning grounds.
Nobody in the Bay seemed upset by the massive over-escapement in local rivers even if it was a number almost four times larger than the usual Kenai return.
None of which is meant to downplay the importance of escapement goals both high and low.
“When carrying capacity is exceeded, salmon runs can collapse quickly to levels the habitat will support,” the Northwest Power and Conservation Council warned in the wake of a record salmon return to the Columbia River in 2014.
Scientists who’ve studied salmon runs in Alaska for decades say the issue isn’t quite that simple, however. At some point long before a fishery collapse, salmon systems welcoming more fish than they can support begin to see what are called “density dependent” effects due to too many fish.
The first thing that happens is that the number of fish returning per spawner drops, but the point at which that becomes an issue is invariably debatable.
Whether there is or isn’t over-escapement depends on who you are, the Wild Salmon Center concluded in a white paper written on the subject.
For commercial fishermen, it said, any fish in excess of the escapement goal that gets up a river is lost money, which translates into over-escapement. For fishery managers, any escapement that pushes the return per spawner into negative numbers is over-escapement.
But for fishery biologists and ecologists, the idea of over-escapement doesn’t really exist. A large number of returning salmon just means more fertilizer brought back from the sea to enrich the river drainages in which the fish are born and die.
Number two: Fishing on spawning grounds harms fisheries
See number one. What harms fisheries is the harvest of too many fish or the elimination of their habitat. And despite much concern about the latter in the dam-riddled, sprawling areas of human expansion such as the Pacific Northwest, the former continues to be the source of most fish declines.
The worry about fishing on spawning grounds is also strangely salmoncentric. Nobody seems to worry about fishing on the spawning grounds of marine species.
Halibut, for instance, spawn through March into April and sometimes as late as June, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Their Gulf of Alaska spawning areas are well documented.
And yet the commercial fishing season for halibut opens on March 1, and there are no blanket closure areas in the Gulf to protect spawning areas.
Nobody seems particularly worried that fishing on spawning grounds will harm halibut.
Number one: Alaska’s limited entry law was a conservation effort
The Alaska Limited Entry Law was enacted the very next year. About 16,000 permits were eventually issued to commercial fishermen, according to the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. (CFEC).
What shifted Alaska salmon fisheries from the low returns of the 1970s to the record returns of the 1990s and 2000s were stringent regulations to prevent overharvest and a warming of the North Pacific Ocean that increased salmon survival.
All limited entry did was protect the financial interests of those people who obtained permits to fish. A lot of the original permit holders cashed out their permits – which were awarded free by the state but became property that could be sold – and quit fishing.
Limited entry did make it easier for state fishery managers to regulate harvests. It’s easier to control the catch of 1,000 boats than 10,000 boats, but from a conservation standpoint that might actually have increased the commercial harvest.
Because the larger the number of people fishing, the more conservative fishery managers are forced to regulate to ensure that escapements are met. In a crowded situation, wise modern fishery managers err on the side of underharvest rather than overharvest.
Fewer commercial fishermen allows managers to better tune the commercial catch to put the maximum number of salmon in the fish holds of commercial boats and still meet escapement goals.
All of which has been a good thing – a really good thing – for Alaska commercial fishermen.
In the decade after statehood, the commercial catch of sockeye in Cook Inlet, the body of water at Anchorage’s doorstep, averaged 1.3 millon per year. And it fell in the 1970s when Upper Cook Inlet’s 1,300 commercial fishermen were allowed to catch only 1.1 million sockeye per year.
Not long after limited entry was imposed, a massive turnaround began. By the 1980s,commercial fishermen were netting an average of 4.4 million fish per year in the Inlet. Their take had increased by about 3 million fish per year over the historic, pre-statehood harvest.
And sport and personal-use dipnetters who also faced extreme restrictions in the 1970s when Inlet runs of sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon were weak. How did they fare?
Sockeye harvests for tens of thousands of anglers and dipnetters increased by only about 500,000 fish total. And catches of Chinook (king) and coho (silver) sometimes actually fell as returns of those species got caught up in indiscriminate commercial net fisheries that target sockeye.
Limited entry didn’t work so well for those fishermen, but then limited entry was never about maximizing the number of salmon getting back into Alaska rivers, where subsistence, personal-use and rod-and-real fishermen catch their slamon. Limited entry was about maximizing the income for Alaska commercial fishermen.