UPDATE: This story has been updated with the Board of Fisheries meeting July 17 to discuss whether sockeye salmon runs are being reduced by the large production of hatchery pink salmon in Alaska.
With commercial fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, having now lost a potential fortune, Copper River sockeye salmon fisheries are re-opening with the fish throwing state managers another twist in the strange year of 2018.
The early component of the sockeye run – the component worth $9.50 per pound to commercial fishermen this year – turned out to be a bust, but the late component appears to be doing much better to the benefit of in-river salmon harvesters.
Commercial fishermen were allowed to catch but 26,000 sockeye over the course of three short openings at the end of May with dock prices for the fabled “first-of-season” Copper sockeye at record highs.
In a normal year, commercial gillnetters would have caught 10 times as many or more sockeye between May and mid-June, but the fish just weren’t there. Even with the commercial fishery closed and harvests ended, sockeye entered the river as a trickle.
By mid-June, with in-river return of sockeye about 100,000 fish shy of the goal for the date and fading, personal-use dipnet fisheries in the river were closed along with small, sockeye salmon sport fisheries on Copper Basin tributaries to the big, muddy glacial river that drains most of Alaska along the Canadian border.
Rock bottom for the return came on June 20 when a sonar counter near Miles Glacier on the river counted only 2,046 sockeye. The daily management objective was 8,999. And by then the cumulative goal for the season was lagging by almost 110,000 fish and some were beginning to wonder if the river would meet minimum spawning needs.
Then, the return began to tick upward, and in a matter of days fish were flooding the river. On June 24, the daily return went over the daily goal for the first time all year. Returns have topped daily goals ever since.
By July 4, enough fish had entered the river to put the return back at the cumulative goal for the date and still the sockeye came. State fishery managers are now almost 40,000 fish above the goal for this date.
That led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to Monday issue an emergency order re-opening sockeye salmon sport fisheries starting Friday. Dipnetters, meanwhile, are getting an 84-hour fishing period starting at noon Thursday and running through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. Subsistence fisheries that had been restricted to a single, 48-hour weekly fishing period are also to return to seven-day-per-week fishing on Friday.
And commercial fishermen are again getting some fishing time off the mouth of the river. Unfortunately, sockeye salmon prices have fallen significantly with sockeyes from around the state now entering markets.
A complicated picture
The thinking of the moment to explain the jump in fish is that a sockeye hatchery far up the Gulkana River, a clear water tributary to the Copper, might be getting a strong return. Why is an as yet unanswerable question.
“The Gulkana hatchery stock appears stronger than expected so there should be a good run in the Gulkana River in August and September,” reported Glennallen area fisheries biologist Mark Somerville. “For the most part, early stocks do go further upriver than late (stocks) but many rivers have a combination….
“For example the Klutina and Tonsina both have clear water systems at high elevation where we see earlier run fish go, while the main spawning in those systems is in lakes and the main stem which get later running fish.
“The Gulkana has an early stock and late stock. Tanada Creek gets a long run of sockeye as well as do some Slana streams, but as a rule of thumb the big push of early fish do tend to spawn in the upper tributaries above Gulkana. The earliest stock we know of is actually Mendeltna Creek in the Tazlina system with those adults actually showing up in late May on spawning beds around Old Man Lake.”
Not many fish showed up there this year.
The late return to the river is healthier, but not exceptionally big when compared to some past years. Since June 24, more than 250,000 sockeye have poured into the river. But in 2012, another year with a big return of the late fish, almost 325,000 sockeye hit the river over the same pace of time despite regular commercial fishing periods off the mouth of the river intercepting tens of thousands of sockeye, according to Fish and Game records.
The 2010 commercial catch of Copper sockeye was 636,000 with an estimated 33 percent of those Gulkana hatchery fish, according to state reports. The 2012 commercial catch was 1.9 million fish with only 18 percent Gulkana hatchery fish, according to state reports.
Fish and Game was projecting a commercial harvest of 1.2 million Copper sockeye this year. Fishermen will be lucky if the catch reaches even a tenth of that.
Various opinions have emerged to explain why sockeye returns to the Copper River, Southeast Alaska, Chignik and parts of Kodiak Island are weak, but the evidence to buttress most theories is weak with but one exception.
Pinks trump sockeyes
Scientists probing Prince William Sound for evidence of long-lasting damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill last year stumbled on a strong statistical correlation between increasing numbers of pink salmon in the Sound, boosted by hatchery production, and declines in Copper sockeye.
“We found a negative relationship between adult hatchery pink salmon returns on sockeye salmon productivity, supporting the predation and adult competition hypothesis,” they wrote in the study published at PLOS One, an open-access, peer-reviewed website for scientists.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.
“Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia. Pink and sockeye salmon compete in the marine environment due to a high degree of similarity in diets, including similarities in diets of adult pink salmon and juvenile sockeye salmon .
“Our analysis was primary designed to test drivers in the nearshore environment, which is why we stopped at a lag of two (brood) years—when the majority of juvenile sockeye salmon out-migrate from the nearshore environment as adult pink salmon are returning to spawn.
“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas. Pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species.
“In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular. However, adult pink salmon are known to feed on a broad diversity of prey items within PWS prior to spawning, including a variety of zooplankton; and therefore have the potential to compete with juvenile sockeye salmon in PWS for the same prey.”
Greg Ruggerone, a Seattle-based fisheries scientist, and Jennifer Nielsen, a fisheries scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, in 2004 authored a paper presenting evidence that pink salmon – the smallest and fastest growing of Pacific salmon – have a competitive advantage over other Pacific salmon.
“Research consistently indicated that pink salmon significantly altered prey abundance of other salmon species (e.g., zooplankton, squid), leading to altered diet, reduced total prey consumption and growth, delayed maturation, and reduced survival, depending on species and locale,” they wrote in the paper published in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries.
“Growth of pink salmon was not measurably affected by other salmon species, but their growth was sometimes inversely related to their own abundance. In all marine studies, pink salmon affected other species through exploitation of prey resources rather than interference. Interspecific competition was observed in nearshore and offshore waters of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, and one study documented competition between species originating from different continents.
“Key traits of pink salmon that influenced competition with other salmonids included great abundance, high consumption rates and rapid growth, degree of diet overlap or consumption of lower trophic level prey, and early migration timing into the ocean.”
None of the studies have been well received by Alaska commercial fishermen who pay annual assessments on their catches to support private, non-profit hatcheries.
Hatcheries are “vital” in Alaska, Jerry McCune, the former president of the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), the state’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, argued in an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News on June 30.
“Massive investments have been made in infrastructure that wouldn’t be possible without hatchery production,” he wrote. “In 2016, Silver Bay Seafoods built a new processing facility in Valdez designed to freeze 2.7 million pounds of salmon a day. This investment benefits the community along with contractors, processing workers, fishermen, transportation companies, and many other support services. An investment like this couldn’t have been made without the contribution of hatcheries.”
The Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) is now planning to significantly up its production of pink salmon to boost the processing output in Valdez. The Board of Fisheries is to meet July 17 to consider whether that is a good idea with a variety of state sockeye and Chinook salmon runs in bad shape. Also before the Board at that meeting is a petition to restrict Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island fisheries that intercept sockeye bound for the the Chignik River where the failing sockeye run is shaping up as a full-blown disaster.
Pink salmon are a low-value salmon with a high-value byproduct for Alaska salmon processors: roe.
As demand for salmon has grown, so has the market for their eggs (often called roe or ikura),” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Fish farms do not produce roe because farmed salmon are not reared to maturity. Salmon roe is an important aspect of the strong pink and chum salmon prices, as these two species provide the majority of roe produced in the state.”
Pink roe, according to an Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute report, was worth almost $8 per pound in 2016. Roe accounted for about 40 percent of the value of the pink catch that year.
The roe is made into a delicacy the Japanense call “ikura.” Solid by the kilogram, an order from Seattle Seafoods will set you back $134.29 not counting shipping. That’s about $61 per pound.
“While Pink Salmon Ikura is not commonly considered the “Cadillac” of salmon caviars,’ a title long held by Chum Ikura, by sales it runs a close second at a considerably lower price point,” the company’s website says.